"Getting back to normal" is something most of us have been looking forward to. It sounds great in the abstract, but actually returning to in-person activities after experiencing a year of COVID-19 social distancing could be stressful. Dr. Julia Martin Burch shares insights and tips to ease your child's transition back to in-person activities. As vaccines roll out across the world, children are preparing for the return to in-person activities, including school, extra-curriculars, large family gatherings, and play dates, among many others. For many kids, this will be a welcome change as a return in-person activities means fun playing with friends, easier learning, and well-known routines and traditions. Yet the return to in-person activities- particularly mandatory school- also brings a host of worries and uncertainties for children and parents alike. In particular, many introverted or anxious kids have come to feel more comfortable staying home during the pandemic and have had few opportunities to practice getting out of their comfort zone. It is crucial to help all kids prepare for the return to in-person activities but is particularly important for kids whose shy or anxious temperament may make this a particularly big shift. Luckily, parents and caretakers can do much to help prepare kids for the upcoming changes. Re-establish routines Children thrive with predictable routines and feel empowered when they know what to expect. Several weeks before your child’s activity starts again in person, get them ready. For example, to help your child prepare for a return to in-person school, start to slowly shift your child’s morning schedule. This can include gradually waking up earlier to allow for time to get dressed in a school-friendly outfit, eat breakfast, and have time to get to school. Consider introducing some grounding, calming rituals into the day to help your child (and yourself!) stay emotionally strong and resilient during the upcoming period of transition. For example, you and your child can make a habit of taking 5 deep breaths before sitting down to breakfast, enjoying a quick stretch before commuting to school, or discussing your “high lights” and “low lights” of the day at dinner each evening. Calming rituals do not have to take much time or effort, but offer a predictable opportunity for kids to slow down and ground themselves in a familiar, comforting routine each day. It's also helpful to review your community’s safety policies with your child well in advance and practice the steps they may be less familiar with. For example, you can make a game at home of estimating how many feet of distance are between you and your child. It is also helpful to practice wearing masks for longer and longer periods so they are used to it before returning to activities where they will need to be masked full time. Talk about it Well intended parents often avoid bringing up topics that they worry will make their child anxious. However, an open conversation gives kids a chance to air their concerns and get answers toRead More
About Julia Martin Burch, PhDJulia Martin Burch, PhD is a staff psychologist at the McLean Anxiety Mastery Program at McLean Hospital in Boston. Dr. Martin Burch completed her training at Fairleigh Dickinson University and Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School.She works with children, teens, and parents and specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety, obsessive compulsive, and related disorders. Outside of her work at McLean, Dr. Martin Burch gives talks to clinicians, parent groups, and schools on working with anxious youth.
Transitions Can Be Hard A child’s life is full of transitions. Most of these are small and occur daily, such as shifts from home to school or from play to responsibilities. Around the winter holidays children typically face a series of much bigger transitions including from school to home, routine to down time, and back again over the course of just a few weeks! This annual period of upheaval in routine is further complicated this year by the COVID-19 pandemic. Children typically only have to transition in and out of school around the holidays; this year many children have been shifting between in-person, remote, and hybrid learning almost all year. These changes can be taxing to many children and may make them more vulnerable to struggle with the upcoming holiday transitions. Luckily, there are several simple steps that parents can take to help their child prepare for and skillfully adapt to the many transitions of the season. Talk About It Well intended parents often do not mention upcoming transitions to children with the noble intention of sparing them potential stress. However, kids typically do best when their world is predictable, and they know what to expect. Discuss the upcoming transition with your child during a calm moment. Review what will be different and check in on how they are feeling. For example, a parent might say “In two days your winter break will start! That means you will not go to school. You will be home with grandma at first and then with me. It will feel pretty different than a normal school day. How are you feeling about that?”. If your child shares worry or uncertainty, validate their feelings. Additionally, allow time for them to ask questions about the changes. When you answer the questions, express confidence in their ability to handle the transition well. Create Routines Transitions often feel stressful to children because of their inherent unpredictability compared to normal life. Even when the new activity is something fun like making cookies or going sledding, day after day of unpredictability can wear on children. Whether going back to school after a holiday break or from to remote learning from in-person, look for opportunities to make the days as predictable as possible for your child. Talk with your child about how they want to spend their time. Though holiday break days can and should have more flexibility than normal school days, try to stick with a relatively consistent schedule that includes similar sleep, meal, and movement times each day. It’s also important to build time for relaxation and soothing activities like a “mindful minute” during each day. Try to help your child find a balance between being over- and under-scheduled. As you and your child collaboratively make their schedule, get specific about what they will do independently during the day and what they need your help with. Breaks can be a great opportunity for kids to practice taking on new self-care tasks with more independence. This will makeRead More
Around the world, children’s social lives have drastically changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent physical distancing. For many children, these changes represent major losses of beloved activities, including school, extra-curricular activities, and playdates. For socially anxious children, however, the many cancellations may come as a relief since they no longer need to attend potentially anxiety-provoking activities. As a parent or caretaker, it can be concerning to watch your socially anxious child withdraw during this already challenging time. However, there are many small steps you can take to encourage your child to be social and build skills in this area—even during the pandemic. Why Facing Fears is Important It is important for socially anxious children to practice engaging in social situations, even though it is hard. This is because when children consistently avoid something that they fear, their brain misses out on several key learning opportunities. These include the chance to learn that the situation is rarely as bad as anxiety predicts it will be, that they can handle feelings of anxiety even though they are uncomfortable, and that their level of anxiety will likely decrease if they stay in the social situation. In a socially anxious child’s typical day to day life, they have countless opportunities to practice engaging in social situations to teach their brain these important lessons. By creating opportunities for your socially anxious child to continue to engage with peers in quarantine, you can help their brains continue to learn these lessons. Create a Bravery Plan Sit down with your child and explain that you want to help them boss back anxiety and continue to practice facing fears, as they were doing so bravely before the quarantine started. It can be helpful to reflect together on how they feel after pushing themselves to engage in a social situation. Proud? Accomplished? Reflect back often to these observations to help build and maintain your child’s motivation. Collaboratively brainstorm with your child a list of potential social interactions. Do your best to get creative and try to think of ways to replicate the activities they participate in during their non-quarantine life. These might include (virtual) playdates, book clubs, singalongs, games, concerts, or show and tell with objects from each child’s home. If classmates or peers live nearby, your child might bike, walk, or scoot by their homes and say a physically-distanced hello. After creating a list, let your child choose where they are comfortable starting. It is usually helpful to start small (e.g., saying “hi” over text to someone they are comfortable with) and eventually build to more challenging interactions. It can be helpful to repeat an activity several times to allow your child to get more comfortable with it before moving on to a slightly harder activity. After your child engages in the activity, have a brief conversation to help them notice if the activity was as scary as anxiety said it would be and if they were able to handle it. This brief reflection helpsRead More