Another side effect of pandemic living, anxiety over activities that used to be normal is an expected response in our children and ourselves as we navigate changing rules. Parents.com's Ask Your Mom advice columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D, says we can help our children cope and get as close to "normal" life as possible.

By Emily Edlynn, Ph.D.
October 02, 2020
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Illustration by Eric Jeon
| Credit: Illustration by Eric Jeon

Dear Re-entry Ready,

We are currently creating the template for how to parent in a global pandemic, hopefully to never be used again, but as of now, we are writing as we go. First, we had to figure out how to explain to our children they suddenly could not go to school or see their friends. We learned we had to be honest and clear about Coronavirus to instill the importance of hand washing, mask wearing, and hug inhibiting. I think many of us have been impressed with our children's understanding and following of the rules, even at very young ages. We did it! We taught our children well.

I have heard your exact situation all around me, including in my office and in my own home. As the initially highly restrictive rules have loosened in many areas, and we are learning even more about the virus and transmission (like maybe we don't have to spend an hour wiping down everything from the grocery store), we get to change some of the rules. But our children may not be ready because they wrapped their young minds around how serious this situation is and now we are saying, ″don't worry (as much)!″ We may have taught our children too well.

Some children are born worriers, and they are more likely to have overall increased anxiety about COVID that will spike with re-entry into school and activities. Others may have had an experience during the past few months, like knowing a loved one with COVID, that has created more anxiety about exposure. Regardless, there are several approaches to consider in helping your child manage re-entry anxiety and warm back up to the world, even as it remains far from ″normal."

Anxiety Triggered at Home

Check in with your environment: What news stories are you watching or listening to within earshot of the children? Even though they don't seem to hear us when we call their name seven times while they are watching a show, children can have quite perceptive listening skills for what we don't want them to hear. Then, check in with yourself: How are you talking about and reacting to all things COVID around the kids? They are always watching us and how we are responding (no pressure).

We know from years of studying childhood anxiety that parent anxiety plays a role. Thankfully, theories of mothers causing schizophrenia have been long debunked and thrown out as obsolete and wrong, but when it comes to children's anxiety, we need to look at ourselves. Research shows this to be true for anxiety disorders, but there is evidence that even our anxious response in a situation predicts our child's anxious response (like to needles at the doctor's office).

Especially in a scary situation that involves threat, children reference us to see how they should react. We are totally allowed to have our freak-out moments, but the more calm we can project around them, the better for their own coping. When we first walked the aisle of a grocery store, or maybe ate outdoors at a restaurant, many of us have experienced our own re-entry anxiety (yours truly included). It feels strange and disorienting after fear-based avoidance for so long. It makes sense our children would feel the same. The good news is that we have tools for anxiety that we can teach our children, and use ourselves: gradual exposure and relaxation.

Practice Gradual Exposure

We have to keep living our lives as the COVID risk thresholds fluctuate. So, when risk is lower and we don't have to be in Phase 1 total house arrest, we need as much normalcy and connection as we can safely find. But most of us, including our children, can't go from barely leaving the confines of our home to a carefree existence out and about in the world (in a mask of course). We need to take the re-entry in small steps to build our confidence and decrease our worry. The fancy term for this is ″gradual exposure.″

When your child says they don't want to go to the playground because of COVID, you can help them take it one step at a time. Go with them the first time for a short outing. Point out the ways it is safe—maybe it's not crowded so there is plenty of distancing, or many people are wearing masks. Ask your child what they would need to feel safe and less worried. At the next playground opportunity, encourage them to go by themselves for at least a short time, and then extend the amount of time for each outing.

Teach Relaxation Techniques

To help gradual exposure work better, you may need to also teach your child some ways to manage anxiety feelings that come up when he is walking to or playing at the playground. Anxiety is like caffeine for our nervous systems, often causing physical sensations like quickening our heartbeat, making our hands sweaty, muscles tense, and feeling breathless. One of the most effective solutions is fortunately quite simple: slow, deep breaths.

You and your child could do deep breathing together for one minute before he leaves, with a reminder he can do it on his own if he starts to feel those sensations again. The beauty of this is he can do it totally independently and feel confident about helping himself feel better. This confidence on its own can also help keep anxiety at bay. Not to mention the physical exertion of playing on the playground helps release stress and anxiety for a greater sense of well-being overall—once he gets there and can relax enough to play.

The Bottom Line

Re-entry anxiety is one more side effect of this COVID reality affecting us and our children, another part of parenting in a pandemic that we are improvising on the fly. Fortunately, it's easier to manage than the pandemic itself, with well-known strategies from the long-studied, much better understood world of anxiety. The calmer the environment and the grown-ups in their lives, the better for our children. When we help them face their re-entry anxiety, we may also be helping our own, and truly feel ″stronger together." At least we have a template for that while we continue to figure out the rest.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns. 

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

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