UCI psychologist Jessica Borelli shares how parents and caregivers can help children transition to in-person learning

As a top research university, UCI is making tangible contributions in a wide range of fields – from medicine to climate change to COVID-19 research – to help address our biggest challenges, here in our community and beyond. One challenge many parents and caregivers currently face is how to prepare their children to go back to in-person classes with schools reopening.

Social ecologist Jessica Borelli, a UCI associate professor of psychological science and a practicing clinical psychologist specializing in parent-child relationships, offers practical suggestions to help families get back into the swing of things this fall.

The first thing to know, she says, is that different types of kids need different types of support.

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For instance, some are so tired of being cooped up inside, deprived of social interaction, for the past 18 months that they’re raring to go. Others are having a harder time shaking off the layer of caution that has enveloped them for the last year and a half and will experience a great deal of anxiety when asked to re-engage with the world. Let’s consider both:

Raring-to-Go Rileys: With these kids, Borelli tells parents and caregivers, you want to encourage their enthusiasm while also reminding them of the importance of continuing COVID-19 precautions. One strategy, she says, is to separate comments about the shared excitement over getting to see friends again from comments you make about coronavirus safety. Example: “I’m so thrilled you get to be back together with your friends! [five-second pause] When you’re at school, make sure you wear your mask all day. Keeping safe is really important, and it’s what allows us to continue to see our friends.”

Trepidatious Teagans: Parents and caregivers need to acknowledge these kids’ fears while encouraging them to venture outside their comfort zone, Borelli says. It’s only natural for them to be more fearful after a long period of caution. However, she says, it’s important to challenge that tendency so that it doesn’t turn into anxiety and prevent them from engaging in important childhood activities, such as spending time with friends. Tell them that it’s now safe to be around people provided they take the necessary precautions of wearing masks and washing their hands. In addition, Borelli advises, parents and caregivers may wish to point out to kids that spending time with other people is beneficial to other aspects of their health, such as their psychological well-being.

Managing Parents’ Anxiety
Parenting during this COVID-19 transition is tricky, she notes, because you have to manage your own feelings about the situation plus decide what you think is best for your child. One thing that can be anxiety-provoking is when your child’s readiness to engage with the world outpaces your own. In this circumstance, Borelli says, you must step back and determine whether your worries are founded or not. It’s possible that you have a more accurate sense of the risk involved in this situation (and that your child is underestimating the risk), or it’s possible that you have an inflated sense of the risk (and that your child is more accurately estimating the risk). If the latter is true, she says, then you may choose to allow your child to engage in the social activity and manage your anxiety. However, this may be a tall order.

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If you think that your own anxiety about COVID-19 is getting in the way of your ability to parent well or to be happy and healthy yourself, here are some tips provided by Borelli:

1) Identify some safe people you can talk or write to about how the transition back is making you feel. By communicating your feelings, you can gain clarity on the source of your distress. Be specific. Are you worried about your health and well-being or that of others? Is it that social interactions themselves are anxiety-provoking – not because of their potential to spread infection but for another reason, such as because you feel evaluated or under the microscope during social interactions? Once you’ve identified the source of your distress, you can decide whether you think this is a realistic concern and, if so, try to figure out the best solution.

2) Take deep breaths. This helps to calm the nervous system and reduce anxiety.

3) Take whatever reasonable steps you can to prevent infection and then remind yourself that you cannot be expected (nor is it possible) to control everything in your environment.

4) Consider keeping a worry journal and scheduling your worry time. When a concern comes up during the day, you can write it down in your journal, making a pact with yourself that you won’t worry about it until the time of day you’ve allotted for worrying. Only during this time will you allow yourself to worry, using your journal to write about concerns. When worry time is over, you close your journal – and your mind – on your worries.

5) Remind yourself daily of all the people (including children) you know who have not gotten COVID-19. It’s easy to remember the frightening examples of people who have gotten sick, so you need to actively remind yourself of all the people around you who are safe.

6) Use mindfulness to ground yourself in your senses – notice how things look, the sounds you can hear, the way your body feels, the temperature of the air and the scents in the environment.