Returning to work after COVID: 10 helpful tips for parents heading back to the office

May 21, 2021


Whether you’ve relished in not having a work commute and being able to throw in a load of laundry or have been tearing your hair out because the kids barge into your “home office” (read: your bed) 500 times an hour to ask if they can have a snack, one thing’s for sure: Heading back to work in the office post-pandemic is going to be a big change for every member of the family — and something that, regardless of your experience this past year, will bring up a number of emotions for both parents and kids. 

“It’s OK to feel both excited to go back to work and overwhelmed or nervous — our kids likely felt this way heading back to in-person school,” says Lindsey Golomb, a family counselor at Arbit Counseling in Washington, D.C. “Having multiple, even conflicting, feelings is normal. And at the same time, it’s important to remember that holding all feelings and validating all feelings is a practice and one that can reduce feelings of shame or guilt.”

Feeling stressed and confused about returning to work after COVID and all the adjustments for your family that will come with it? Here, experts offer tips and advice for a smooth transition.  

1. Give kids visual, contextual notice 

“Most children will need some advance notice that their parents are returning to work — although whether it’s a day, a week or a few weeks likely depends on the child,” notes Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, a clinical psychologist, parenting coach and author of “The Tantrum Survival Guide. Hershberg explains that, for kids, it can be helpful to present new information visually or within the context of other events. Use a calendar to check off days, or let children know that you’ll be going back to the office “a little bit after you finish school.”

Talk about what will change, but also what will remain the same.

“More so, though, kids will be interested in how the change will affect them,” Hershberg says. “Hearing that parents are going back to the office may mean nothing in the abstract but will have a big impact if it means that, say, a particular parent won’t be around for dinner or bedtime anymore.” To make things easier, Hershberg recommends not only talking about what will change, but what will remain the same. “You can say: ‘Daddy will be going back to the office, so you won’t see him in the afternoons, but he will still be home for bedtime most nights,’” she suggests. 

2. Prepare them for child care

One change some families will need to prepare for in conjunction with going back to the office is a new child care routine, whether you’re sending children to day care or bringing in a new nanny or sitter. While it’s perfectly normal to want to minimize or take away kids’ nervousness before the transition, Golomb advises letting kids feel what they’re going to feel — even if it’s uncomfortable. “As parents we may have the desire and inclination to take away our child’s discomfort or anxiety,” she says. “Often this may lead us to reassuring kids that they ‘will be fine’ or ‘it will be fun!’ While these comments are well intended, we also want to hold space for the tough emotions as well.” 

Validate your child’s worries to make them feel less alone and more seen.

When parents validate and verbalize some of the worries kids may have, Golomb explains, they’re actually making children feel less alone and more seen. “It also lets kids know that these feelings are OK and normal to have,” she continues. “Despite these feelings, parents can draw upon the amazing skills the child has. It’s important for kids to know their parents believe in them and are confident in their abilities.”

Here are a few more tips from Golomb about easing the back-to-child-care transition:  

  • Draw on times when your child did something new. “Notice the feelings that came up and their mastery after practicing or doing that new activity a few times,” she says. 
  • Clearly communicate new routine. “Having transitional objects like a special gem or stuffy can help empower the child.” 
  • Do some ‘trial runs.’ “Drive by the child care center, pack the backpack, practice what drop-off may look like,” Golomb says. “Again, this empowers the child.” 
  • Celebrate successes. “Maybe offer a special snack at the end of the day,” she says. 

3. Anticipate difficulty and practice self-compassion

Golomb notes that, regardless of how meticulous you plan, new routines and rhythms take time — so try not to be hard on yourself when inevitable missteps occur. Going easy on yourself won’t only behoove your sanity, it will set a good example for your kids. “There’s always some trial and error when adjusting to a new routine,” Golomb says. “We all need some self-compassion in this department. And, in fact, this is a great opportunity for parents to model self-compassion for their kids.”

Maybe you have to order pizza three days in a row. That’s OK.

Hershberg agrees, encouraging parents to remember this is a big adjustment. “The number one thing to keep in mind is that this is a big transition, one that comes after an extended collective trauma,” she says. “Parents need to be gentle with themselves and keep their expectations in check while taking steps to make things easier. Maybe it’s prepping meals for the week on Sunday or ordering pizza three days in a row that first week. Also, consider delegating household tasks, but recognize that some balls may be dropped.”

4. Model problem-solving

Another way you can set a good example for your kids during periods of transition? Problem-solving. “Problem-solving is another great tool parents can model for their kids,” Golomb says. “As you go, figure out what things could be done the night before, what things can slide in this new routine and what things are best led by whom? Kids will pick up on these things.” 

When you problem solve in a healthy way for your kids, they can learn how to do this too.

Also, pro tip for couples: If you have a partner, problem solve with them, so you don’t wind up lashing out at one another. “In any great problem-solving opportunity, you need good communication,” Golomb continues. “It’s not about how much each person does but how to work as a team. Designate specific tasks to each partner to avoid daily confusion and tension. When women often play the role of ‘family director,’ handing over specific tasks to partners can help alleviate this management role while empowering the partner.” 

5. Look at kids’ behavior as a language (not a personal offense) 

In a dream world, kids would sleep through the night the day before you have to head into the office, everyone would neatly eat their breakfast that morning, and at the end of the day, kids will just want to snuggle up or play quietly. But as every parent knows, that’s very unlikely to be the case. A more likely scenario: Someone’s refusing to go to bed the night before, sibling squabbles in the morning and meltdowns at the end of the day. The reason? They’re trying to tell you something. 

Kids often communicate through their behavior, so try to listen to what they saying.

“Look at what kids are communicating through their behavior,” Golomb says. “Kids show us how they feel through behavior because their language skills and the prefrontal cortex are not as developed. Cueing into what’s driving the behavior can help you as a parent respond with empathy, thus making the interaction more effective.”

6. Focus on the benefits

Regardless of whether or not the idea of uninterrupted work supersedes the overall rigamarole of having to go into an office (and reimagine child care and school runs), it’s crucial to remember that there are benefits to working outside the home.   

“It’s important for children to realize that their parents are people outside of being parents,” Hershberg says. “They have jobs, friends, interests and lives beyond their children. Knowing that their parents are returning to the office will help kids understand this in a more concrete way.” 

Time spent apart can be beneficial for both parents and children.

Additionally, Hershberg adds, kids pick up skills of their own when they’re not with mom or dad all the time. “When children are away from their parents, it allows them to build independence and autonomy, skills that are important at any stage of development,” she explains. “Also, having a lower quantity of time together may well increase the quality of time together.”

7. Consider a nanny share 

When Marisol Perez found out her company wanted her back in the office a few days a week, initially, she panicked. “My husband wasn’t home and my kids weren’t enrolled in an aftercare program,” the mom of two from New York explains.

Think outside the box when it comes to child care.

Her solution? Hooking up with a friend for a nanny share, splitting the cost of the sitter the friend already had and rotating houses. “Really, it’s a win all around. My friend is paying less for child care, the nanny is making more and our kids get to hang out twice a week.  

8. Feel your feelings

As the old saying goes: You can run, but you can’t hide. “There’s no such thing as avoiding feelings,” Hershberg says. “We feel how we feel and when we try to resist it, it only grows stronger.” Her advice? “Allow all the feelings, even — perhaps especially — if they’re hard to make sense of or are conflicting,” she explains. “This whole year has been nothing if not complicated. Why should feelings about going back to work be any different?” 

Feelings can give you clues about what’s working and what’s not.

“Instead of fighting your feelings, notice them, name them and allow them to be,” Hershberg continues. “Tell yourself that they’re only feelings; they can’t hurt you, but they can provide information about things that are and aren’t working. If parents are going to keep problem-solving, as the joint jobs of working parents demand, then they need those feelings as a first step.”

9. Fill your tank

Heading into the office full- or part-time, working from home or not working at all — doesn’t matter. You still need to figure out ways to regularly restore yourself. “Figuring all of these tasks is a huge energy expenditure, and parents need to ‘fill their tank’ throughout the day,” Golomb says.

Place the mask over your own mouth and nose before assisting others.

“From daily stressors to holding the cumulative stress and anxiety from the last 15 months, all of this is a lot. When we look at mental health with a generational lens, we recognize the importance of caregivers attending to their own health and wellness in order to promote the health and wellness for their children as well.” 

10. Reconnect after a long day

At the end of a long day of work, you may be exhausted, but your kids are still craving a connection with you. “Taking 20 minutes to play or talk with kids, giving them your full attention, can go a long way,” Golomb explains. “Kids often turn to negative attention-seeking behavior as a means to get our much-needed attention. Connection time first may help reduce that.” 

Taking 20 minutes to play or talk with kids, giving them your full attention, can go a long way.

Golomb also adds that writing out new routines can also help kids feel more prepared and in control in the midst of change. “Give kids a say in the new schedule,” she says. “Letting them create new routines is an opportunity for children to voice something that is important or special to them, even if it’s just 20 minutes of playtime with mom or dad or a special snack. Like adults, kids feel good when there is a sense of ‘voice and choice.’”

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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