From our counselors
Talking to Children about Not Returning to School

Take care of yourself

It is important that we provide a nonanxious presence for our children and to do means we acknowledge and manage our own feelings. For some children, their anxiety comes from seeing how anxious and stressed their parents are so creating a calm, safe, stable environment is key. They will look to us for cues. Are we stressed? How are we handling the stress?

Try to maintain a calm, neutral demeanor in front of your child, even as you are working on managing your anxiety. Be aware of your facial expressions and the intensity of the emotion you express because your kids are reading you.

In order to most effectively listen and help, we need to recognize and manage our emotions and responses first.

Talking about and experiencing difficult news can be exhausting. Some ideas for your own care include:

  • Turn off the news or limit your news consumption.
  • Take a break. Step away, close a door, go outside.
  • Engage in physical activity.
  • Do something that will lift your spirits and make you feel calmer.
  • Connect with friends and family and have some fun.

This is hard, but we can do this.

Resist the urge to avoid the conversation. Not talking about something can actually make children worry more. Your child may initially resist attempts to discuss their feelings, or even deny having any strong feelings, but try to make opportunities to listen, knowing that those opportunities might present themselves at unexpected times. Often children handle feelings in small bites and may want to talk about their feelings in brief segments. 

Recognize there may be elements of grief involved in processing this news. This means you and your child may experience a number of different reactions and feelings from anger to denial to sadness, while others might initially experience some relief. As a family you will eventually move to acceptance and you can play a role in creating a safe, calm space for that acceptance to exist.

Talking with children about difficult topics like school closing, cancelled events and trips, and general changes.

  • Have a plan in mind.
    • Think about what you want to say. It’s okay to practice in your head, to a mirror ,or with another adult. Some advanced planning may make the discussion easier. You won’t have to think about it off the top of your head.
       
  • Find a quiet moment.
    • Perhaps this is after dinner or while making something together. Perhaps your child is better equipped to handle tough conversations at the start of the day. Use your judgement and knowledge of your child to find a time and place when your child can be the center of your attention and you can be the center of their attention. 
       
  • Find out what they want to know.
    • As adults we tend to overshare or fill silence with more words. Follow your child’s lead. What are they curious about? What else is on their minds? Go with where they lead you and know that it’s okay if they don’t have many questions now. They may later.  Remember, children often handle feelings in small bites and that’s okay.
       
  • Consider their developmental stage.
    • Early elementary school children: Provide brief, simple information that balances facts (school is closed) with appropriate reassurances (the school is closed because that is a safe, smart thing to do right now). Reassure that adults are thinking of how best to help keep them healthy and safe. Use language such as "adults are working hard to keep you safe" and even name some of those adults like Nurse Gina, Mr. Lester, etc…
       
    • Upper elementary and early middle school children: This age group often is more vocal in asking questions. They may ask reasons about the decision. They may ask whether they indeed are safe or what will happen in the fall. They may need assistance separating reality from rumor and fantasy, especially if they are chatting with friends. Discuss the efforts of school and community leaders and emphasize that many people are working hard to make smart and safe decisions for the school and the city.
       
  • Anticipate questions like:
    • What about my stuff in my locker/desk/cubby/etc…?
       
    • How will I say goodbye to my teachers?
       
    • What about my friend who is moving/leaving NPS?
       
    • What about teachers who are leaving NPS?
       
  • Be honest and embrace not knowing.
    • Tell the truth as you know it even though you may not have all the answers.
       
    • Embrace the response, “I don’t know,” because that is the truth much of the time.
       
    • Resist creating an answer you think they might want to hear and instead be honest but also reassuring. “I don’t have the answer to that question yet. I know Ms. Lester and so many other people are working on an answer to that question though. All of our stuff is safe. Mr. Miranda has been checking on the building and lots of people are keeping everybody’s stuff safe and ready for us to come get one day. I will let you know when I have some answers.”
       
    • Focus on things you can do. Making cards or memory books or having special virtual playdates or times with friends or teachers who are leaving.
       
  • Be sure to listen. Listen. Listen. And listen more. Offer lots of love and affection.
     
  • Normalize their feelings. Whether they are upset, mad, confused or anything else, be willing to sit with their feelings by acknowledging them.
    • Reflect it and empathize with their feelings—“I hear your disappointment. It sounds like you are actually kind of mad too. I understand. I have been looking forward to that too. It is sad to miss it.”
       
    • Resist giving advice or “fixing” it. Instead try, “Let’s think about what you are missing and see if there is something we can do about it even though we know we can’t really fix it or change it.”
       
    • It’s very helpful to divide the difficult situations into two categories: things you can do something about, and then things you can do nothing about. Focus on what you can do now and even in the future.
       
  • Share your feelings.
    • It is okay to acknowledge your feelings with your children. They see you are human. They also get a chance to see that even though you’re upset, you can pull yourself together and continue on. Parents hear it often: Be a role model. This applies to emotions, too. You could say, “Do you remember when I got really frustrated in the morning? I was feeling anxious and I forgot that I can use a strategy to deal with that feeling instead of just yelling or getting upset.”
       
  • Above all, reassure.
    • At the end of the conversation, reassure your children that people are working hard to make the school ready and safe and you will continue working hard to keep your home safe and fun too. Reassure them that you will be available to answer any questions or talk about this topic again in the future. Reassure them that they are loved.

What next?

  • Keep the conversation going when needed.
    • Everyone processes change in different ways and along different timelines. It is not uncommon for a child to show signs of distress months after a difficult situation or change has occurred. This may be a topic they return to later this month or even later this summer.
       
  • Stay tuned in.
    • Most children will manage well with the support of family members, even if they show some mild signs of stress or concern, such as difficulty sleeping or concentrating.
       
    • If you notice changes in behavior or some of the signs below begin to pop up, monitor them. Pay attention to the frequency (how often), duration (how long), intensity (mild, moderate, severe), triggers (what precedes the distress), and disruption to everyday activities like eating, sleeping, and relating to others.
       
    • Seek support when needed.
       
    • Early elementary (N-K): thumb sucking, bedwetting, clinging to parents, sleep disturbances, loss of appetite, fear of the dark, regression in behavior, and withdrawal.
       
    • Elementary (Grade 1-6): irritability, aggressiveness, clinginess, nightmares, school avoidance, poor concentration, difficulty separating from a grown-up (even within the home) and withdrawal from activities and friends.
       
    • Adolescents: sleeping and eating disturbances, agitation, increase in conflicts, physical complaints, delinquent behavior, and poor concentration.
       
  • Foster a sense of resilience.
    • Resilience is about helping kids cope with difficult emotions and difficult times and showing them they have control
       
    • Doing something good for someone else builds resilience
       
    • Redirect stress and strong feelings into action. Help them look outward and consider ways they can help others in their family, their community, and the broader country.
       
    • Identify family projects that might help others:
      • Writing letters or drawing pictures for neighbors or family
      • Writing letters or drawing pictures healthcare workers
      • Sending positive messages over social media
      • Delivering groceries for older people
      • Reading books to younger kids online
      • Leaving chalk drawings, messages, and games in the neighborhood
      • Making masks
      • Donating items or money to organizations that are helping those in need
         
  • Realize you cannot shield your child from stress and difficult experiences.
    • These experiences are a part of life as much as joy, excitement, frustration, contentment, belonging and happiness. Thus, the best defense is a good offense. Helping your child to learn how to manage what comes at them by modeling resiliency and coping skills is the way to go. Fortunately, even very young children (no age is too young!) can learn to manage their stress effectively and productively, which will serve them well when they are adults.

Additional resources

NPR | Coronavirus Has Upended Our World. It's OK To Grieve

Nationwide Children’s | COVID-19: How to Help Kids Deal With School Closings and Cancelled Plans

Connecticut Children’s |Resilience Is Strength: Kids Can Bounce Back From Anything With the Right Support

Connecticut Children’s |Resilience Is Self-Care: Kids Can Learn How to Manage Stress