Key Takeaways

  • Young children cannot articulate their worries about separating from their parents and returning to day care, so it’s important to be aware of the signs of distress and engage in play activities to help prepare them for separating from their parents during the day
  • Communicating to preschool and school age children about their concerns going back to school, encouraging them to connect with friends and teachers and speaking about what to expect when going back (including anything new, such as teachers wearing face masks) can help ease the transition
  • It is important for parents to also be aware of their own worries about returning to work and separating from their children, and how that might be perceived by their children

During the COVID-19 pandemic, families self-isolating at home together has presented many opportunities for family time and bonding between children and their parents or caregivers. However, this can also present challenges for parents as more are able to return to work when children, especially infants and toddlers, have grown attached to their caregivers and used to staying at home with their families.

Archana Basu, PhD, clinical psychologist, and Nancy Rotter, PhD, co-director of the Pediatric Behavioral Medicine Program at Mass General for Children, answer some questions parents might have about preparing their children for when they return to work, and how to approach this topic when their children might not be used to being separated from their parents at day care or school.

Q: Babies develop unique bonds with their parents early in life. What can we learn from attachment theory about how and when children develop these bonds?

Basu: Attachment theory is an empirically supported theory of parenting and child development that describes the quality of the parent-infant relationship, and how it develops. As parents (or any consistent caregivers) respond to their babies’ cues of hunger, discomfort, etc., babies develop a sense of their caregivers’ responsiveness and reliability. When caregivers are consistently responsive and attuned to their baby’s needs (e.g., picking up the baby promptly when they cry, soothing and feeding the baby), the baby develops a sense of trust and security that their needs will be met. However, the attachment relationship is not simply about meeting the baby’s needs for food, sleep, etc. The emotional attunement of caregivers is central to the quality of the parent-infant attachment relationship.

By approximately age two, children typically develop one or two primary attachment relationships with caregivers who provide the most consistent and responsive care (e.g., with their parent or parents), and may also develop attachments with other people (e.g., siblings, grandparents), including in later stages of development (e.g., peers). It’s worth noting that the quality of the attachment relationship within each relationship can be different. Early attachment relationships are believed to serve as a mental template for later relationships, and the quality of primary attachment relationships has been shown to be a powerful predictor of children’s later social and emotional development.

Q: How might infants and toddlers respond when they separate from their parents? How can parents best prepare for this reaction in their children?

Basu: When infants and toddlers separate from their parents (or primary caregivers), they cry, cling and may frantically look towards their parents, or reach out towards them, to re-establish closeness. These are adaptive reactions because parents, whom the baby knows and trusts, provide protection and care. The attachment system is believed to be an adaptive evolutionary response because a baby’s need for proximity to a caregiver ensures the baby’s survival. These reactions continue either until the baby is reunited with the parents, or in the case of a longer separation, the baby eventually gets “worn out” and quiets. In addition to these more immediate reactions, young children who may not have acquired language skills as yet, may show their discomfort or worry by being more clingy, fussy or having difficulty with sleep and feeding routines. Young children adjusting to a new child care provider or to a day care often demonstrate these reactions in the initial adjustment period.

Rotter: It is normal and expected for infants and toddlers to experience discomfort when separating from parents or primary caregivers. It can be helpful for parents to anticipate and plan for these transitions, which can understandably trigger their own distress. Parents may find it useful to have a clearly articulated plan for drop off with a child care provider. For example, parents might use an engaging toy or activity (e.g. building with blocks, reading a pop-up book, etc.) and invite the new caregiver into the play, to assist in bridging the transition. Even with a plan in place and anticipation of their child’s distress, it is distressing for parents to experience their child’s tears and clinginess at the point of separation. Parent self-care, as Dr. Basu describes in some detail, is essential for managing typical parenting stress.

Q: What can parents of infants and toddlers who have been working from home during the pandemic do to prepare their young children for their eventual return to work?

Rotter: Separation will be an area of challenge for both parents and children as day care centers re-open. Parents may experience their own anxiety about having children return to day care due to worries about COVID, and may inadvertently send signals to children about their own anxiety.

Parents can help prepare their children for these expected challenges through play and practice activities. For example, engaging children in play with dolls or other toys to demonstrate the process of going to school, saying goodbye and talking about the ways in which day care providers will help take care of them during the day until the parent returns can be useful. When possible, practice visits to the daycare center to refamiliarize children with the care facility and see teachers, which can help ease their return. Similarly, helping children become comfortable seeing adults and older children wearing masks through practice at home, can aid in their adjustment to wearing them outside the home. Strategies such as placing a mask on a favorite stuffed animal/doll or decorating masks with stickers can increase comfort for children. Parents may find that wearing a mask in the house, can help both with modeling and assisting children in getting used to seeing others in masks.

Basu: At any age, and especially with infants and young children, predictability in routines and caregivers communicates a sense of familiarity. This can be reassuring and helpful during major transitions. So, taking children’s favorite toys or soothing objects, or having photos of the family in the day care can help. If possible, parents can start with shorter days in day care, rather than a full day or full time, allowing children to become familiar with their day care environment and child care provider. Parents can also speak to the day care or preschool about consistency in the schedule of care providers, and ask about any additional changes that might be in place now due to the pandemic (e.g., care providers wearing masks, or having drop-offs at the entrance or lobby rather than in the classroom) to help their children prepare for it.

Additionally, many children and families have understandably experienced shifts in their routines as part of adjusting to the stay-at-home orders. For instance, nap times at home right now maybe at a different time than the schedule at day care or preschool. In the run up to re-starting day care, parents can make small shifts to their kids’ routines over a few days, so that these routines more closely resemble the routine at day care or preschool. This can help children with the transition and adjustment process.

Finally, and importantly, parents may have their own worries and also need time to adjust. It can be helpful for parents to take the time to check-in about their own feelings and concerns, and practice self-care, even if it is only a few minutes a day. Children learn to respond to situations from their parents and caregivers, and can pick up on their parents’ nonverbal emotional cues. So, parental self-care is important not only parents themselves, but also for their children.

Q: Is there a way parents can talk to their young children about what will happen when they return to work?

Rotter: Once parents have specific information about the plan for children to return to day care, while they go back to work, it can be helpful to preview this in a way that a young child can understand. For example, parents can show children photos of day care providers or fun activities that have enjoyed there in the past. Use of play materials to rehearse the process of returning to day care as well as reading books on the topic with children is helpful. Since young children have not yet developed a sense of time, talking with them about familiar events/activities during the day can help to prepare them for their new schedules. For example, parents might find it helpful to remind their child that the family will be together for breakfast and again for dinner, but they will be eating lunch at school with their teachers and friends.

Q5. How might preschoolers (ages 3 – 5 years), who have already formed attachments to their parents, respond after getting used to their parents being home for the past few months? What strategies can parents use with preschoolers?

Basu: As with infants and toddlers, preschoolers are also likely to express worry about separating, after becoming used to parents (or caregivers) being at home. Typically, preschoolers have language skills to express many of their thoughts and feelings. While preschoolers may verbalize some worries or questions, play is the language of young children. Preschoolers have a rich fantasy life, and often work through their feelings and explore ideas in play or through storytelling. Thus, parents may also learn of their children’s concerns in other creative ways.

Children who were consistently attending preschool prior to the stay-at-home orders are likely to remember their friends and teachers and may even have been in touch with them through video chats. Children may experience mixed feelings, such as wanting to see friends or teachers, but also missing their parents. Parents can name and validate the range of feelings that children experience about returning to preschool. They can also use play or stories to explore their kids’ questions or worries. Relative to infants, preschoolers are likely to remember and understand that the parents will leave, but also return at the end of the day, and that they can turn to their preschool teachers for help and support during the day. If children have not kept in contact with their friends or teachers, then organizing a play date with their friends (while following appropriate public health recommendations) or driving or walking by the preschool are good ways to re-introduce the preschool environment.

Parents can also talk to their children about what things will be the same in preschool (e.g., teachers, friends, routines) and what might be different (e.g., teachers wearing face masks). Parents should also speak to their children about any concerns about the coronavirus directly, in simple factual terms. For instance, parents can tell kids that the school is listening to what the doctors and scientists are saying about safely opening preschools. Parents should also continue to remind and practice appropriate hygiene and public health measures. Finally, in the run up to resuming preschool, aligning the timing of key activities (e.g., meal, snack, or nap times) at home with the routines anticipated in preschool can also help.

Q: Are there different strategies parents should take with older children, such as those in elementary school, who may also be worried about separating from their parents?

Rotter: School age children are also likely to experience some anxiety about returning to school, after the extended period at home, particularly if they are prone to anxiety. Previewing and preparing children for going to back to school through the use of role play and small steps such as driving by the school, playing with their friends and playing on the school playground, depending upon the current pandemic restrictions is recommended. Talking with children about the things that will be the same (e.g., returning to same building, seeing friends) and different (e.g., physical distance between desks, wearing masks, lunch in the classroom) will also help with their adjustment. Additionally, predicting and normalizing that children may feel nervous about returning to school, and reviewing past bravery stories—experiences when they felt anxious but were able to master a challenge—is a useful technique.

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