Courtney Arseneault, MS Ed
Building a bridge from your child's concrete world to the vast unknown
Are you noticing your preschooler or kindergartner feeling anxious about things they are usually not troubled by? I call this the "what if" stage. Your preschooler/kindergartner is no longer a concrete thinker, instead he or she is beginning to think abstractedly and ask "what if" questions. "What if my mom gets stuck in traffic and is late to pick up? What if my teacher is not at school? What if I can't find my dad in the store? Add COVID related concerns and these what if questions can be impacted by more fear and stress.
The "what if" stage is when your child begins to voice specific fears and attempt to reassure themselves they will be okay. Some of these fears seem rational while others may not. My daughter was afraid to let me out of her sight because what if something happened to me! If I left to go to the store or an appointment she would grab on to me crying, what if something happens to you?!?! Helping children through this stage is as easy as asking questions. Why are you worried mommy will not come back? What do you think will happen? What can I do to make you feel less nervous about...? How can I make this feel less hard?
This "what if" stage can especially impact children transitioning to kindergarten during a normal year, but with COVID and so much uncertainty their fears will likely be heightened. I have recently noticed questions on social media about when, where, and how to register children for kindergarten. If your child will be attending kindergarten this fall, I encourage you to delay speaking with them about this move. Although initially exciting to consider, it can cause your child anxiety about the unknown what ifs. What if the bus driver forgets where I live? What if my teacher doesn't like me? What if I don't have any friends? What if I can't find my classroom/the bathroom? COVID based anxiety will add to this, "What if my mask falls off?", "What if my teacher gets sick?", "what if my friends get sick?"
Statements such as "Kindergarten is a long way away, after the summertime. We will talk about it when it is the summertime." will help stop some of the questions they are not yet ready to have answered or understand. Again asking questions back can help you to understand what your child's thought process at the time is. Respond with "What do you think?" or "How do you feel about this?" so you can understand what information your child is looking for and what they are capable of understanding at this time. Questions asked, help to give you information needed to understand what information your child needs from you to navigate this new stage of uncertainty, the vast unknown.
Children who will be returning or attending preschool as four year olds are beginning the journey from concrete thinking to that of more abstract. Setting the stage at this age can help prepare your child for the "what if" stage. Notice your child's reactions, label their feelings, validate these feelings, and encourage your child to use their tools (hugging a special toy, going to their quiet, safe place, using a fidget toy, etc). Role model how you deal with things when things feel too hard. Giving children tools to cross this bridge will make it feel less scary.