Coronavirus: With children apart from their parents for 1st time since lockdown, what should we expect?

This is the first time in six months that some Canadian parents have been apart from their children for an extended part of each day.

The new school routine amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic can cause separation anxiety for both kids and adults, according to Janine Halloran, a mental health counsellor and the founder of Coping Skills for Kids. Global News’ Laurel Gregory spoke with Halloran about how families can navigate the transition.

Laurel Gregory: What will adults be feeling as they are stepping back into the world, sending their kids off to school and being apart from them?

Janine Halloran: I think we are going to see a lot more anxiety from parents. For the last few months, we have all been sort of in the same space. We have been able to check on them pretty regularly. We have been able to be there for them, and then suddenly it’s almost like they are going off to school again for the first time because it’s been so long.

I think we’re going to see some more anxiety from the parents — absolutely.

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More worry about what the day is going to look like, what it will mean when somebody gets sick, what does it mean in terms of child care if there is not a full day. There are so many worries and anxieties that parents are going to be facing, just as adults trying to navigate and make it through the pandemic.

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LG: How does that anxiety manifest typically in adults? What kind of behaviour might that show up as?

JH: I think we’re going to be seeing a lot more questioning, a lot more hard time sleeping, some stomach aches. We’re going to be seeing a lot more — what can we control? So we will be controlling different things in our lives. Maybe we are having some bigger reactions with our kids than we typically would as we are going through this hard transition. We might start to cry, we might start to get angrier over things and we are not really sure why. But I think part of that is just anxiety bubbling up in different ways.

LG: And what about for kids? So for different age groups, what can we expect to see?

JH: I would say for the little ones, expect some regression. Kids who were doing OK transitioning into school before, especially when they were little, those ones who aren’t as used to school routines, you are going to see it be more difficult. I think we are going to see actually from all ages a little more school phobia, where they are worried about going to school, they are worried about their teacher being sick, they are worried how things are going to go in the school day. If somebody gets sick during the day, what happens? All of those different questions that they will have, they will start to ask those over and over and over again, which absolutely makes sense. They want to know the answers to those questions.

I think from older kids you are definitely going to see more crankiness [and] potentially some school refusal from the older ones as well. Especially those teenagers, they’re going to get a little bit crankypants and not want to go out necessarily. I think that is part of the anxiety.

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It’s very worrisome after you have been told to stay in a bubble — “Stay at home, don’t leave, don’t go anywhere or something will happen” — to then say, “OK, now it’s time to go back out.” Of course there is going to be that challenge of how do you work that? How does your body make that happen? How do you feel OK with that after — for so long you’ve had to change everything so quickly, then to transition. We have to give ourselves grace to transition slowly into this and recognize we are going to see some more behaviours, we are going to see some more anger [and] we are going to see some more fears from our kids. And that is expected and OK. We’re all working through this and living through this together; we will make it through to the other side.

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LG: Is there anything you might advise parents not to do? I know that’s hard to say because every child is going to handle this separation differently.

JH: I would say the thing that parents shouldn’t do is sort of dismiss their feelings: “Oh, you don’t need to worry about that. The school is taking care of that.” No. Let’s talk about your worry. Don’t dismiss it. Listen to them.

Their worries are just as valid as yours. Their feelings are just as valid as yours. They feel things really big. So we need to recognize and acknowledge that.

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But I think there are so many things parents can do to make it a little bit easier… One of the first things I think about is creating routines and rituals for before and after school to make that easier. So whether that is before school we give a hug, shake on the head, a little elbow pat, something kind of fun that signals it’s time to go to school. Then coming in, doing a quick check-in. Doing something like roses and thorns. What were the good things about your day (the roses) and what were the not so good things about your day (the thorns)?

The other thing I think [is] if there are kids that are really struggling, kids who are school-phobic or the kids who are refusing, I wonder if having some sort of transitional object like an object that is special at home or an object that has meaning that they can bring back and forth with them. So maybe it’s a shell that you got on your vacation. Or maybe it’s a funny pencil that you liked using when you were doing school at home — something that can help ease that transition back and forth.

LG: I also wanted to talk to you about scheduling time to worry. It’s so interesting because a University of Chicago sleep specialist said she finds a lot of sleep has been disrupted over this time because kids are worrying in the night. Waking up and then parents are going in. So tell me about scheduling that worry time.

JH: What I have done as a therapist — and I’ve done it with a bunch of my clients over the years —  is I get them an actual physical little box… and what we do is we take Post-it notes and we write down their worries… For parents, I recommend just setting aside maybe 15 minutes a day so they can have those check-in times. Then the kids and the parents or whatever adult is working with them, they write down their worry, they can even rate it on a scale of one to 10: this is a really small worry [or] this is a really big worry. Then what you can do is, you try to make a plan about the worry. So, “I’m worried about not being able to see what my friends look like at school,” or, “I won’t be able to recognize my friends.” So talking through how you can do that, what are the steps you can take and then putting the worry in the box. Then you go through all of the worries and then you put them in the box and say, “This is our worry time. At the other times, we don’t need to worry… We have a scheduled time so that you can sleep and you can do the other things that you want to do and you can play, have fun and read books. You don’t have to worry about it because you know we have a time that is time for you to have that worry,” and really talk about it.

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What is so powerful about this is when it is done daily, it’s so wonderful because it gives parents and kids the opportunity to check in.

And what parents will find over time is that the worries change kind of quickly! So if you can adjust one worry, you can manage a worry and make a plan about a worry, then maybe that worry no longer needs to be in the box and you can shred that worry. That worry is all done… Maybe over time it just becomes a time when you can do a check-in instead. You’re just having a few minutes where you are just connecting with each other, which is powerful, especially right now.

LG: With the separation, for younger kids, are emotions sometimes displaced?

JH: It happens all the time because they are little and they don’t quite understand it. But they are having this emotional reaction to something. So sometimes that’s when it’s good to just kind of scratch under the surface. What is the worry really about? My son got upset about something with his summer reading and I didn’t understand what it was and then we got to the point of understanding he’s worried about going back to school.

LG: Did I miss anything? Is there anything else about coping with this transition?

JH: I think the one thing I would say is we just need to be flexible in our expectations. Some days are going to be awesome. Some days are not. And that is OK. All of us are going to have tougher days and easier days as we are transitioning. Just as we transitioned into COVID(-19) — it was kind of harsh, it was a jolt to the system — this is going to be a little bit of a jolt as well. If we can give each other grace, if we can be allowing for flexibility, allowing that maybe everything doesn’t get done, chores don’t get done, the dishes are in the sink overnight, all of those things – to be OK with that, and to recognize that the biggest thing that we can do is just have that connection with our kids. If it means that homework doesn’t get done and all we did was sit down and talk about books — cool! Because that’s what matters. It’s about the social and emotional learning right now.

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