Worldwide, families are learning to adapt to living with COVID-19, including changes in the way we greet one another and the way children attend school and play together. As with anything, letting go of our comfort zone can be difficult, especially for children who may not understand why change is happening. Canopy Children’s Solutions Nurse Practitioner Hart Wylie, PMHNP-BC, offers insight through this transition.

“Children are usually very adaptable, as long as adults are clear of their expectations and remain consistent in their reinforcement,” says Wylie. “Studies have often found that when children are given a high expectation, without being unrealistic, that children will often achieve those expectations.”

Because of COVID-19, many of the changes we are asking of children seem unnatural to them. Children are typically taught to share, show appropriate affection, greet or say goodbye to people in particular ways, to explore the world through each of their five senses, and to build relationships through quality time with others. Now, everything has changed. But that doesn’t have to be a source of frustration for you or your child. Be creative with the challenges your child is facing and talk openly about how you find change difficult, too.

Think about the expectations placed on your child in public. Wearing a mask, particularly in the heat and humidity of Mississippi, can cause children to be prone to frustrations and behavior issues. Consider adjusting your schedule to limit the amount of time your child has to be out. Also try offering an incentive for compliance if you have to go out, such as allowing them to pick a special treat for being cooperative at the grocery store.

The expectation for children not to touch objects is also a challenge for many. Children (and adults) learn about the world around them through their senses. Do stress the importance of not touching things unnecessarily. But it’s unlikely that a child won’t touch anything if in a store for a prolonged amount of time. Remember, it’s all about realistic expectations. Before going into public, or sending your child to school or child care, talk to him about the spread of germs and practicing health safety such as coughing or sneezing into his elbow, washing and sanitizing hands regularly, extending personal space, and avoiding touching others as well as his own eyes, nose and mouth.

“You have to strike a balance between rules and flexibility based on your individual child, his situation, his age and what the rules are being set before him,” said Wylie. “It’s important that you don’t undermine the importance of rules and that you answer your child’s questions honestly and age-appropriately when he asks why something is happening (or not happening) or why a rule has been put in place.”

Some of the changes and restrictions our children are experiencing have been in place for months. If you are noticing your child is still struggling and it is affecting his emotions, ability to perform at school, or even his overall behavior, look into counseling as soon as possible.

“COVID-19 has been a greater presence in our lives than most anyone expected and with that we will have a residual impact now and as time goes on,” says Wylie. “If you start noticing developmental regression, losing skills, changes in eating or sleeping patterns, loss of interests or unexplainable pains, these are childhood signs of potential anxiety and depression and should be addressed as early as possible. We don’t know when this is going to end so trying to ‘wait it out’ can lead to long-term risks and struggles.”

We still might be months or years away from seeing our “normal” come back to existence — and some things may have changed for good. We must learn to embrace change. As we learn to navigate this new world we’re living in, it’s important that we strike a balance in our lives that ultimately promotes our safety as much as our mental and emotional well-being in our daily lives and in the lives of our children.

This article originally appeared in the October 2020 edition of Parents and Kids Magazine. Laura Walker is the staff writer for Canopy Children’s Solutions. Canopy offers an array of behavioral health, educational and social service solutions to children and families throughout Mississippi. For more information, please visit mycanopy.org or call 800-388-6247.