Now that kids are back in the classroom, there’s a very real possibility that they may be exposed to the coronavirus, and may need to be tested — or to isolate. This can be alarming for parents, and frightening for some children. Kids may also be disappointed if they have to miss out on certain activities.
One of the best things you can do to prepare your child for this risk, no matter their age, is to explain that there are plans in place should someone be exposed. Here are six ways to help them deal with whatever feelings may come up in the event that an exposure notification arrives.
Understand what your child knows
There’s a lot of information (and misinformation) swirling around about the pandemic, and what is understood is changing so quickly that children can find it confusing — as can adults, said Elizabeth Rapa, a senior researcher at the University of Oxford department of psychiatry.
First, ask children what they already know and understand about the rules that the school has in place for keeping them safe, and welcome their questions, said Dr. Anna Miller-Fitzwater, a clinical associate professor of pediatrics at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in North Carolina.
What have your kid’s teachers and administrators “officially” said in school? What have kids been hearing from friends or on the news?If your own understanding of the school’s policy is different from how your child is explaining it, you might want to clarify with the school — and if there is misinformation floating around, correct it.
Acknowledge frankly to children that exposures may happen. But remind them that following the procedures for when they do occur helps them protect their friends and classmates and, ultimately, should help keep schools open.
Dr. Adam Ratner, director of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone, said the overall message parents should convey about school safety protocols, from masks to exposure notifications, should be positive: “This is how we’re going to beat this, this is how we’re going to keep school safe this year.”
Also, be willing to admit if you don’t know the answers to all of your child’s questions, and to research the answers together. Difficult or complicated conversations like these should be ongoing, never one-and-done, and should start well before the moment they’re immediately relevant.
Devise a backup plan
If you have a young child who needs to isolate at home, figure out how you will handle it now. Can you work remotely for a short period of time? Do you have a friend, family member or babysitter who can pitch in at the last minute and is comfortable with COVID safety protocols?
Reviewing these plans with your child may help them feel a sense that things are under control.
If your child is exposed, acknowledge and validate any feelings that arise
For many children who are glad to be back in school, close contact with someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus will mean inconveniences and disappointments — getting tested, missing school, staying home from planned activities if isolation is required. You want your child to feel free to discuss those feelings with you.
If your child needs to isolate in such a situation, they may react in a variety of ways, said Louise Dalton, a consultant clinical psychologist at the University of Oxford department of psychiatry. “Some may feel really anxious and worried, some may feel really angry with the person they think exposed them,” she said. Some children will be furious that they have to stay home, but others may be happy about it.
Parents should “validate and normalize their child’s response,” said Melissa Cousino, a psychologist and an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. “I often say, ‘This worry that you are feeling or this anger that you are feeling, it’s a normal response to the abnormal,’” she said. The pandemic is what is strange — and wrong — in the world, not the child’s emotions.
Children in middle or high school are more likely to be upset about the social impact of an exposure, such as missing time with friends, school events or sports. “Life was starting to return to some kind of normalcy,” Cousino said, and now that has been interrupted. Understand what is most upsetting for that particular child, and if possible, work with the school to recover the opportunity: “It may not be the worry of getting sick, it may be the worry of missing tryouts for that sports team.”
If your child is in preschool or elementary school, Rapa said, give them the facts without scaring them, and keep it practical: “You’re going to stay indoors with us because we don’t want to infect anyone else.” Reassure them that as a family, you’ll get through it together, she said, and offer concrete details and plans about the time at home.
Be alert to magical thinking in this age group — children may have strong ideas about how they were exposed or why they might get infected, sometimes linking completely unrelated events. Or they may be reaching for an unrealistic solution.
Pay attention to your child’s temperament and anxiety level, Dalton said. If a child is anxious about the possibility of getting sick, offer specific reassurance that for the most part, children have only mild illness with COVID, if they have any symptoms at all.
Model appropriate coping strategies
“We know that how children cope with adversity is strongly associated with how the adult parents and caregivers in their life cope with adversity,” Cousino said. Parents can talk about their own strategies for carrying on, she said, maybe explaining that when they feel worried, it helps to take a walk or to listen to music.
It’s important, though, not to blame others. An exposure doesn’t necessarily happen because someone did something wrong or reckless. Helping children understand what they can do to protect themselves by carefully following the guidelines should not mean that they end up blaming themselves if they actually do test positive — or blaming other people. “Avoid language that leaves a stigma,” Miller-Fitzwater said. “Make sure they understand this wasn’t someone else’s intention.”
Keep a consistent schedule
When school is interrupted, Dalton said that maintaining structure and routine is key. Keep bedtimes and wake times consistent, and schedule regular mealtimes and exercise. Making things as predictable and routine as possible will be reassuring for kids, and will help prepare them for the transition back to school.
Also, ask teachers about what work needs to be accomplished while the child is out, Miller-Fitzwater said. “It’s really easy to devolve into screen time, but I would caution parents about making sure children stay active doing productive school work.”
Recognize the progress, along with the frustrations
Children ages 12 and older, of course, should be vaccinated by now. But that doesn’t mean they won’t have to face exposure notices, depending on the protocols and regulations of their individual schools and school systems. It does, however, mean they will be much less at risk of catching the coronavirus, and if they do get infected, the risk of serious illness should be low.
Paradoxically, that may mean that some teenagers are more likely to feel angry and resentful if exposures happen and they are told they have to stay home, isolate or get tested. They may feel they have done their part, and are now being imposed on perhaps because others didn’t. Their hard-won “normalcy” of being back in school, back in their extracurricular activities, back in sports, has now been interrupted.
Talk this through in advance with your child, pointing out that “even if you’re super careful, there are going to be cases in school,” Ratner said, adding tell them, “The only thing we can do is play by the rules. If you need to get tested, you get tested, if you need to stay home for a couple of days, you stay home, if that’s what gets you the possibility to go back.”