Girl in black and white striped top and yellow backpack wearing health mask, blurred kids in background wearing health masks

Whether your children are heading into their first or last year of school, it’s totally natural for them to feel some pre-school jitters. But in the age of COVID-19, there may be a whole new layer of back-to-school anxiety. So, how much information do we need to share to ensure they feel confident and safe in the classroom and beyond? Toronto-based clinical psychologist Dr. Jamal Lake shares his insights on how the whole family can work together to navigate this unprecedented scenario.

How might kids process the COVID-19 pandemic differently than adults?

“In the adult brain, many cognitive structures and emotional regulation skills have been fine-tuned over a lifespan of experiences. However, a child’s brain is still developing and learning with limited experiences to draw from. Children may not grasp the impact of major events like the COVID-19 pandemic, but they still have the ability to understand more immediate changes in their environment and can learn to use this new information with a little help from their caregivers.”

How much should I tell my kids about the pandemic?

“Be honest with your child about what’s happening but modify the information with age-appropriate language. For example, use the term ‘virus’ for older children and ‘germs’ for younger children. Avoid words that a child may not have context for, like ‘pandemic,’ or phrases that sound threatening and scary, such as, ‘touching that will make you sick’ or ‘it’s unsafe to hug your friend.’ Keep your wording simple to explain the facts such as how it spreads, the common symptoms, how long someone may be sick and the people who are most vulnerable.”

What if my kids ask something about COVID-19 that I don’t know the answer to?

“Don’t guess! Be honest and use your knowledge gap as an opportunity to look up information together. Regardless of how much you choose to share, you should watch their reactions, be sensitive to their level of anxiety and encourage them to talk about how they’re feeling.”

The return to school has already happened in some provinces and will happen later for others. When should I start talking to kids about back-to-school hygiene such as handwashing?

“Parents should ideally begin talking to their children about going back to school throughout the summer months to help them understand the changes from last year. Children learn through modelling and repetition, so create a habit of washing with hand soap, using hand sanitizer, physically distancing when out, wearing a face mask and limiting the touching of surfaces (especially when not at home). These are all healthy behaviours to encourage children to use once back at school.”

How can I explain social distancing to my kids?

“Explaining the need for distancing is best done by helping kids learn what we know about how the virus travels. A simple, practical example to help teach this would be to fill a spray bottle with coloured water and spray it on a piece of white paper very close to you and again at a distance. After that, have your child observe how far the droplets travel to compare.”

What about when they’re asking about hugging and playing with their friends?

“Explain to your child that even though their friends or others around them may not have the virus, parents and teachers want to keep kids healthy until doctors say it’s OK to touch or be close. Try using the visual of a personal ‘bubble’ or stretching their arms out like ‘wings’ to keep a good distance.”

We all know we should be washing our hands for at least 20 seconds, but how can I get my kids to remember?

“One of the best ways to help your child remember is by creating a unique handwashing routine at home. For example, encourage them to sing along with their favourite song, recite a list of their favourite animals or characters on TV or even do a dance together to make learning more fun. Make sure you speak with them about the reasons why it’s important. When children understand why they need to wash their hands, they’re likely to continue doing it.”

Any other creative handwashing suggestions?

“Try putting a small amount of lotion then glitter in their hands. Then have them wash with just water and notice how much glitter is still there. Next, get them to wash for 20 seconds[1] with soap and water and compare the difference. [Check out this step-by-step guide from Learning Resources.] Younger children may respond well to a behaviour chart to track their hand washing and rewards for frequent and timely hand washing.”

How can I empower my kids to practice COVID-19 safety without scaring them?

“As a caregiver, you can empower your children by helping them learn about COVID-19 and the various ways parents and others are helping to keep them healthy—plus the tricks they can use to keep themselves healthy. Make sure to validate their feelings by reassuring them and reminding them that you are there to support them.”

What about pandemic self-care for us parents?

“It’s important for parents to take care of themselves. You’ll be able to better help your kids if you’re coping, too. Children are like sponges and quickly pick up on parents’ emotions and their response to what’s happening, so it will be helpful for children to see that you are calm and in control. If you’re feeling anxious or upset, take a break and reach out to family, friends and trusted people in your community. Make some time to do things that help you relax and re-energize.”

Is there anything else I should do to prep my kids for the shift back to school?

“The outbreak of this virus has unfortunately contributed to reports of racial discrimination around the world, so it’s important to check that your child is not experiencing or contributing to bullying—especially once they head back to school. Explain that the virus has nothing to do with what someone looks like, where they are from or what language they speak. If your child is called names or bullied at school, let them know that it’s OK to ask an adult for help.”

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