Commentary: Returning to work or day care may mean changes

By Jill Linden

Monday is an important date for families during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many businesses are reopening, so their employees will be returning to work after a long absence. Some of the children of these employees will be returning to day care programs.

Adults returning to work and children returning to day care will likely find changes and experience unexpected feelings. Knowing ahead of time what might happen should help make these transitions easier.

An adult’s job may be a little or a lot different than it was before. You may have to do more because there are now fewer employees. You may have to wear a mask, which can be uncomfortable and makes it more difficult to communicate with others. You may have to work farther away from your colleagues, which also may make it harder to communicate.

Jill Linden

You may worry that your return to work is only temporary because the business is having financial problems. You may disagree with co-workers about what are, and are not, safe behaviors, such as what to touch and how far apart to be.

You may feel guilty that you have a job when so many people don’t.

You may worry about co-workers who cough or show any other signs of illness.

You may be shunned if you belong to, or work with, a group at high risk for catching COVID-19. That might also happen if one of your family members works with a high-risk group, such as workers in medical and long-term care facilities, and people from certain local geographic areas, certain states and countries.

You might feel happy that you are finally getting away from other family members for a while.

You may have gained weight while you were away from your workplace. Your work clothes may be uncomfortable now.

Successful adaptation to your “new normal” will require time, patience and tolerance for others.

Just as parents need to prepare themselves to return to work, their children should be prepared for the changes they will experience. In some households, children have been staying at home with two adults. If only one adult is returning to work, the children may not have many changes.

However, those children who will be returning to day care will see many changes. In the summer, some school-age children, as well as younger children, are going to day care. For some children, this transition will go relatively smoothly. For others, particularly shy or anxious children, this may be difficult.

Parents and day care staff can do several things to help children adjust.

If you can, talk with the day care director ahead of time and ask that the situation be as familiar to the child as possible. This might include the day care staff, the room and the other children the child is near. Sitting next to a friend helps many children feel more comfortable.

Many children have been isolated at home for weeks. They will be surprised to see so many people wearing masks. They may also be frightened of this.

Children, like adults, associate masks with criminals. It is often bandits who wear masks in movies and TV shows. Also, young children may not understand that a particular masked person is the same person they knew without the mask.

Children may be returning to day care in either a home or a larger group setting. In both, staff formerly known to a child should first let themselves be seen unmasked, at a safe distance. Then, the child should watch as masks are put on.

If time allows, you and the child should visit the day care room and the child’s teachers before the child actually starts back. If possible, arrange for the child to stay for a brief time doing something she enjoys. She should then be more interested in returning.

Some children are afraid at first to join large group activities. They should be allowed to stay by themselves initially and incorporated into a larger group in a series of small steps. For example, first one adult could sit with the child. Then, another child, and then two could join them. Then, this small group could join the larger group.

Keep in mind that refusal to join an activity can result from fear, not a wish to misbehave or a way to get more attention.

Sometimes what is allowed or typical at home is different than what is expected at day care. Children who have been home for weeks will probably talk and behave at day care like they do at home. They may yell, hit, argue or run indoors. Day care staff should give children time to readjust to their rules. Gentle correction or redirection rather than punishment are appropriate for the first couple of weeks back.

Children who used to be happy and self-confident at day care may be less so now. This could be due to many possible reasons, such as anxiety about what will happen in the future or worry about their family’s financial situation. Keeping the day care schedule as consistent and predictable as possible should help with this.

Jill Linden, Ph.D., is a retired psychologist living in Harbeson.