The past year has been unrelenting for everyone, but for working parents also overseeing their children's remote learning, the demands of being educator, playmate, psychologist and referee throughout the day, every day, has left many of us exhausted. Many families are experiencing burnout, whether it’s with remote schoolwork, house work or work-work. And while kids are set to return to school in April for in-person learning across Massachusetts — perhaps offering some reprieve for beleaguered parents — it doesn't mean everyone's fear and anxiety will go away overnight. GBH News checked in with child psychologist Dr. Melinda Macht-Greenberg for advice on how to prepare kids for the next phase of reopening. The questions — asked by our audience members — and answers below have been edited for clarity.
1. How can I get my kid ready for the transition back to full-time, in-person learning?
It’s going to take a while to change and to get used to school routines. And any change raises anxiety. We all get used to things, everything becomes familiar, that’s part of our resilience package. So making a change again is going to feel unnatural again, and it’s going to take a while to be able to get back into those habits. So I think one thing that can be really valuable is to start now. If we know that schools are going to be reopening in that first or second week of April, people [can] start now with getting back into school routines, whether that’s setting alarms, or having breakfast, picking out school clothes. Whatever works for your family, whatever was your pre-COVID [routine].
As for schools, expectations are going to have to change. Schools should evaluate what curriculum have they covered and what they haven’t covered. They need to evaluate also where kids are at, not only academically but also socially and emotionally. Because kids are not returning without the emotionality of what this past year has been. We also know when kids have anxiety, it’s harder to learn and take in information. Figure out where that matches up with curriculum. What we don’t want to do is double up and cram more information into these last few months of schools in order to make sure that kids are going to be ready for next year, because I think that will be completely overwhelmng for kids. And right now many, many, many kids are emotionally vulnerable.
2. A family member died from COVID. My daughter is 6 and is still asking questions. How can I be honest with her without scaring her?
Talk with kids in a developmentally appropriate way and in an honest way — so whatever your family beliefs are, or religious or cultural beliefes with people passing. The important thing is to talk with kids about what your family beliefs are. I think it’s very important to understand that the idea of death for a 6-year-old doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing [as it does for an adult]. And we need to ask our kids, what do you think happens? What are your ideas? How does this feel for you? We may have assumptions as adults that they have a very different view than they might have. And 6-year-olds are very creative and have tremendous imaginations. So if we ask kids, what are you thinking, what are you feeling, then we can help them make sense of the world.
3. Are there any specific strategies for reeling kids back in from screen time limits that have gone out the window, specifically for boys and video games?
I think as kids go back to school, that will automatically start to change, because the amount of screen time will diminish, and kids will have more opportunities for socialization as activities resume. Like so many things, it will have to be a gradual change, so I would not recommend saying, 'as of tomorrow, we’re going back to pre-COVID screen limits.' I think it’s something to talk about openly with kids and make a plan together, especially for teenagers, because teenagers do so much better when they’re involved as being part of the decision-making and are much more likely to push back if they feel like it’s some rule coming at them rather than a process that they’re engaged in. So talk to them and ask, 'how do we manage this now? What makes sense and how can we work on it and build a plan together?'
4. My daughter has been remote for a year so she has a fear she won’t have any friends going back. I think it’s because she hasn’t seen them in person for so long. I tell her everyone is in the same boat. Do you have any other reassurance?
I think that this is a huge issue, and that anxiety is very typical and something for schools to be mindful of. One thing you might want to try to do is engage with some of the social contacts your child had before. If virtual is the way to do it, or outside if it feels safe, I think it will rekindle the feeling of connection and remind your child of the sense of, this is what it feels like to have a friend and what it feels like to be with somebody. And I think it’s a feeling that kids are really missing and lacking right now. You may want to start with a couple play dates outside of school so when they go into school, it’s much easier to enter into a situation with a buddy.
5. How is it best to communicate with employers that child care, especially for children under 5, has gotten harder to obtain? Day cares have longer waislists. My husband and I haven’t had child care for a year and a nanny doesn’t feel safe to us yet.
One thing that I hope will come out of this terrible time is that there is much more understanding by employers of the need for more work and family balance. There should be conversations about the gradual change and reintegration of people back into buildings. But I think if there’s an openness of conversation and people are agreeing to work together, that together will actually get them through this. I think what gets harder, when people don’t have that kind of opportunity, that their work is not the kind of place where they can have that kind of conversation, then it’s going to be much more challenging. Unfortunately, we often see the burden falls on the parents. I think there are tremendous opportunities and working from an off-site location is now something that a lot of employers have seen that people can do with success. It allows people flexibility. And flexibility for any business is an opportunity for growth, so I hope that people embrace that.
6. My son, who was going to be a freshman in college, had to stay home. I loved having him for another year even if it’s for a crummy reason. Do you see any silver linings? And do you think it helps to look for the positives?
One of those things is family time for many people, certainly not everybody, but some of those bonds and connections have really strengthened and grown, and I think that is really positive. We have come to appreciate so many things around us. One of the things that has been helpful, too, is outreach and connection for people who are struggling. I think that will be another silver lining that I hope we can continue. Another thing is, kids have learned about flexibility in a different way. They have learned to go with the flow a bit. They see that they’re going to manage okay. Once this has all passed, that skill that we have to be flexible, that kids are learning to manage and be creative problem solvers, I think that will be beneficial for the future.
See more about parenting in a pandemic on NOVA's Parentalogicseries