How parents can help children cope with the COVID-19 school return

Tips from Island Morning's conversation with Dr. Michael Ungar, a specialist in child, family and community resilience who is based at Dalhousie's school of social work.

Tips from a talk with Dr. Michael Ungar, a specialist in child, family and community resilience

A child maintains social distancing measures while washing hands at a primary school in London, England. P.E.I. schools will have more rules in place this fall to keep the risk of COVID-19 spread low, so parents and children will be having some important conversations. (Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

When Island students go back to class on Sept. 8, they will almost certainly be unnerved about what the school year will bring in the age of COVID-19.

On one hand, Prince Edward Island's 44 cases have all been related to travel and there have been no hospitalizations or community spread here. On the other, public health officials across Canada have been warning people to keep their guard up because the so-called "second wave" of coronavirus could be even worse than the first one. And all but the very youngest children will have absorbed these messages from media and family conversations alike. 

Most children haven't been in a classroom for around six months, and when school resumes there will be a lot of new rules to follow. 

Dr. Michael Ungar is a professor in Dalhousie's school of social work.  He holds a Canada Research Chair in Child, Family and Community Resilience. He spoke with Laura Chapin of CBC's Island Morning and shared some tips for parents. 

Expect signs of stress

Children have been experiencing uncertainty for months, and have been missing friends and normal activities. They may be feeling overprotected.

That could lead to anxiety and a slip in academic performance. Some may eat more or less than usual; others might become either hyperactive or "incredibly slothful," said Ungar. There might be bedwetting, tears and tantrums that are not typical of your child.

"Usually it's just an indication that they're in distress," Ungar said. 

Accentuate the normal

What helps? Restoring structure and routine. Letting kids be kids. Not overemphasizing the dangers to them personally.

Instill some optimism

"Things are going to get better tomorrow," Ungar said. Predictable environments will help boost a kid's sense of control. 

But be open and realistic

Have open conversations, help kids understand that they are "part of a mission — that there [is] a purpose to all these extra things that they're being asked to do."

Ungar said children should know the rules will help protect their teachers and grandparents, who may get sicker than a child when exposed to the same virus. Parents shouldn't shy away from "talking about the fact that people have died from this. Kids are actually better off knowing those kinds of facts … we don't want to sort of sugar-coat everything."

Michael Ungar is an author and professor of social work at Dalhousie University. He spoke with Island Morning's Mitch Cormier this week. (Dalhousie University)

Help them find something new to do

Work with your child to find some new ways to boost self-esteem.

"I know kids can't necessarily go back onto the soccer pitch and back to piano lessons and back to every activity where they found an identity, where they found something about themselves."

Ungar said we'll need to find at least some substitutes for those things, like posting and contributing in a supportive and creative online environment.

"It doesn't seem to have the same negative impact on young people's psychological development as if they're just passively watching reruns of something on television or … YouTube videos. 

Be strong when tears come

Don't give in if they beg to stay home from school, saying they are too scared.

Ungar advises telling children: "No, this is a reasonable expectation.… We can accommodate the colour of your mask and we can do those kinds of things. But you do have to go back."

He encourages parents to hold firm because that in itself creates optimism in children.

"It creates a predictable environment and says to the child, 'I actually care a lot about you.' If we abdicate that, if we walk away from that, we actually give kids more cause to escalate their anxiety."

Realize some children have not suffered

Not every child reacts the same way. Ungar said some children may be thriving from being at home and spending more intense time with their parents or grandparents. 

Maybe they had been exposed to bullying or they just weren't feeling very secure at school. Ungar said those children have probably been decompressing and enjoying "a really great pause in their lives." 

Realize other children could keep suffering

Children who were struggling academically before COVID-19 are going to have the biggest lag in their education after six months away.

"So those kids are going to need lots of extra supports as they re-enter the classroom," said Ungar.

"But they do need to re-enter or else this almost becomes a chronic condition of anxiety and social withdrawal and that is certainly not what we want for the kids."

Push through until it gets better

If children are still balking at going back to class every morning two weeks after day one, Ungar said you might want to seek help from a respected public health source or mental health facility. But be consistent as a parent, keep the lines of communication open, and do small things that instill optimism — such as making a point of bringing up good things that are happening.

Have family meals together, with tech turned off, to keep the daily reconnection going.

"But let's be clear: It's going to be a difficult transition for kids for the next two to three weeks until they fit in and find their rhythms."

More from CBC P.E.I.

With files from Island Morning


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