It is a familiar scene to most parents – sitting there in the middle of the road waiting for your turn to pull into the school “drop off zone”. Will that person in the blue SUV move up? Are they getting out of their car – but you are not allowed to park in the drop off zone!? I am already running late for work! With students likely using less public transport, and parents likely not allowed into primary schools, the line for drop off will be longer than ever.
Some kids will be so keen to get back to school that the car will barely have stopped rolling before they get out. Other kids will be more reluctant and anxious. After all, there is strong evidence to support the idea that quarantine is associated with symptoms of post-traumatic stress, anger, and confusion. This will likely be especially true for young people with existing struggles with anxiety.
Just because a young person does not appear anxious about returning to school, does not mean that they are not anxious. Anxiety manifests itself in many ways, such as irritability, hyperactivity, and withdrawal. It is important to keep your eye out for different signs.
No one is really quite sure about how students will adjust in their return to school. As many experts have pointed out, we are in the midst of one big experiment. So in the absence of a clear modern precedent to this, let’s look for some evidence based strategies to guide parents during this return to school.
1. Stay present
This lock down can be thought of as a type of trauma. Not the type that we would typically consider trauma such as a natural disaster or when we are physically hurt. Yet trauma does not have to be physical. Trauma can occur when there is a real or perceived threat to our safety. Coronavirus has been like a hovering spectre of uncertainty and threat. One that young people can have an especially difficult time understanding when it takes them away from a key wellbeing resource, their friends.
There is much research on the impact of trauma, yet one of the most robust findings is that if a young person has a secure attachment to a caregiver, then they are at a significantly decreased risk of developing negative emotional and behavioural consequences to their trauma.
Secure attachment can be defined as when a young person feels that they have a caregiver who is safe and reliable, and is consistently able to meet their physical and emotional needs. This is put at number one on this list, not only because of the research supporting this, but also because every parent can make efforts to become a secure attachment figure. You can do this through a calm tone, predictable body language, and focusing more on listening than lecturing.
2. Expect emotional meltdowns
Research conducted on prisoners in solitary confinement found that prisoners experienced notable hypersensitivity to stimuli when released. The lack of exposure to environmental inputs meant that once out of solitary, such inputs could become overwhelming.
While a COVID-19 lock down is very different to a prisoner in solitary confinement (not least because we can be comforted by the fact that over two billion other people are going through a similar thing), it is certainly the case that young people will be exposed to a wider range of stimuli (through all of their five senses) than they have been used to for several weeks or months. Stimulus overload is a common trigger to emotional meltdowns for all ages, and thus we need to expect these.
A lovely strategy from Dr Dan Siegel called “connect before you correct” can come in very handy here. Instead of “you need to stop doing that, you are making such a scene”, trying instead “I can see you are really upset at the moment, and if I was you and I had missed out on 8 weeks with my friends, I would feel the exact same way”. This process of connecting helps to calm the more primitive sub-cortical regions of the brain responsible for these big emotions.
3. Don’t forget to do a warm-up!
Just like if you were getting ready for a run, you need to warm up. Some families have not left the house in two months. School is going to be challenging for all young people at some level. So before you go back to school, doing simple things like walking past (if you live close) or driving past the school on the weekend before you go back can be very helpful.
Looking at old school photos, making sure you make a contact with school friends on the weekend before you go back. If your young person is especially anxious, then help set them up to meet a friend at the gate before they go in to school on the first day. Given uncertainty is at the core of much anxiety, anything that increases certainty and familiarity is a good thing.
4. Understand the paradox of connection
For almost my entire career as a clinical psychologist, I have steadfastly adhered to the idea that connecting with other humans is just about the best thing we would do for our mental health (see my blog here on surviving lockdown). The paradox here is that human connection is both a source of comfort and fear. Fear because for some young people, they will link all human contact with the fear of COVID-19 infection.
Simply explaining this paradox and the importance of social connection is key, as well as talking to the young person about the positive things they can do to stay safe such as hand-washing and not touching their face.
5. Be realistic with your expectations
Unrealistic parental expectation can be a source of anxiety for young people. Further, these unrealistic expectations can often be set up by a parent’s own anxiety about their child’s achievement.
For some, this anxiety will be enhanced by the time away from school and traditional earning (e.g., what if they fall behind?). Parents can take heart by the views of Professor John Hattie, who notes that children who lost up to a term of their schooling after the devastating Christchurch earthquakes, showed no significant academic disadvantage in the coming years.
So as you sit there over the next little while looking at the blue SUV and wondering if it is going to sneak up another 5 meters so you can sneak into that drop off zone and stop holding up traffic behind you, consider that both you and the young person/people next to you have gone through something remarkable together.
Be proud of what you have achieved together and the (imperfect) bonds you have created. As they leave the car (or the front door of your house) for their first day back at school, make sure you thank them for being a great young person, and let them know that you are proud of them every day.