There was no preparation for the transition into lockdown. One day, COVID-19 was a vague virus I was reading about in the news, and the next, it was here—in my small town, in my schools. And everything shut down with alarming speed. The change to stay-at-home life happened almost literally overnight for my kids. We had no time to plan. The kids had no time transition. They began living a quarantine life without any warning or preparation, at all. They were scared and struggling to adjust to the sudden life change.
But that won’t be—or doesn’t have to be—the case as we emerge from lockdown and begin transitioning into a “new normal,” which will look different for every family. As states are re-opening, phase-by-phase in many places, more and more activities are permitted, and more and more parents and caregivers are required to return to work. Meaning children are beginning to emerge from isolation—whether by choice or circumstance. Unlike when we went into quarantine, though, this time we can prepare our children for yet another huge life transition.
Scary Mommy spoke with former AAP President, Dr. Colleen Kraft, Senior Medical Director of Clinical Adoption at Cognoa, a leading digital behavioral health company focused on pediatric behavioral health, and asked her what advice she’d give to parents to help them ease the transition out of lockdown for the kids.
Her advice, put simply: there’s no one size fits all approach for emerging from lockdown. Kids are going to react to the transition from lockdown in a variety of ways because every kid is different, and as a result the preparation they’ll need in emerging will be different. That being said, she believes kids will fall into one of three potential categories, and it all depends on their temperament.
There are some kids who are ready to get back into the world, who are desperate to get back to seeing their friends and their teachers. For those kids, to prepare them for life outside of lockdown and the “new normal,” Dr. Kraft stresses ensuring safety and reinforcing good habits. Her suggestion is to talk to your child about how best to be careful while we keep connected with friends and schoolwork: masks and reinforcing the idea of good hand hygiene and not touching your face. For those kids who are ready to get back out, the message is slow down and be safe—the doors aren’t, or at least shouldn’t, be thrown wide open sending caution to the wind just yet.
A second group of children will be more anxious about leaving lockdown. These are the children who felt safe at home, and they were happy with their smaller world and increased one-on-one time with their parents. They may be anxious. They may be afraid of germs and the virus. They may be struggling with a new (or renewed) separation anxiety as they step out of a door that had been shut because the world outside had become too dangerous.
For this group of children, reinforcing safety routines (masks and hand hygiene) and communication is key. For those kids with anxiety who are also seeking some social connection, Dr. Kraft suggests asking them what they feel comfortable doing and congratulating them for finding a way to do that activity safely, or even making the attempt. For those children with anxiety who have to emerge from lockdown because parents are returning to work, Dr. Kraft suggests emphasizing safety and the benefits of stepping out of the home. Ensure hand sanitizer is readily available. Have masks available for older children. Send the child with a photo of mom or dad, and maybe adopt a secret word or facial expression to let them know you’ll be back and right there waiting for them at the end of the day.
Unlike the children who are ready to run out into the world, this subset of kids needs a slow and steady approach, a gentle nudge, when that’s necessary, or even a pullback to remain in a virtual, socially connected world, if that’s an available choice until the world is safer.
There’s a third group of children for whom emerging from lockdown will be a particular challenge. These are the kids who’ve suffered during lockdown—who lost a loved one due to the virus, or for whom school was their single safe space and it was torn away, or who couldn’t do virtual school either because the school or their parents didn’t have the resources to support online schooling. These kids will need support every step of the way, right along with the masks and sanitizers.
In general, Dr. Kraft believes that the most useful way to prepare kids for a return to a “new normal” is to recognize your own feelings and emotions on the issue of emerging from lockdown. She says, “You can always talk to your child and tell them I’m feeling anxious and this is what helps me,” because, she reminds us, that children pick up on emotions and the very best thing we can do for children is to model resilience for them. She reminds us that, “We’re all going to be less productive, but that’s not the point of this. The point is how do we begin to build on resilience during a pandemic.”
Staying home is still the safest way to keep your family and your community safe. But staying home isn’t an option for everyone—whether that’s because offices are calling employees back or because the mental and emotional toll of quarantine has grown too great. But unlike when we went into quarantine, this time we can prepare, we can help our children make this next great transition with a little less whiplash. And we can do it by listening to our children—to what they need—and finding that balance between push and pull. And also, by listening to what we ourselves need as individuals, because kids will be as prepared as we are.