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Back-to-School Anxiety: How to Help Your Kids Cope During The COVID-19 Pandemic

Learning is a never-ending process.

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly taught us that with daily pop tests. Now, kids all across the world are facing significant back-to-school anxiety.

Over the last year and a half, each day seems to present new challenges, more questions, and fewer answers. These experiences continually show that no matter how much education a person has there are some lessons schools can’t teach.

Parents have had an especially difficult time knowing what to tell their kids. Moms and dads naturally can feel overwhelmed with the great responsibility of taking care of their children’s mental health and wellbeing in addition to their own. Then, when you add even greater pressure due to the pandemic, getting a handle on the ever-changing situation while also trying to cope with how best to proceed and least affect children during their development can seem near impossible.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Our daily lives are in constant flux as the status of the pandemic continues to change. As a nation, we have been living with uncertainty because of the evolution of the COVID-19 virus and its variants, shifting guidelines from the CDC and WHO, individual beliefs about the validity of being vaccinated and/or wearing masks, and the current political climate.

All of this uncertainty results in so many unanswerable questions.

When, if ever, will we get back to normal?
How do I know if it’s safe for me and my children to not wear a mask?
How can my kids stay as safe as possible when I’m not around?
What do I tell my child to expect when they go back to school?

Back-to-school anxiety, especially since vaccinations for children and teens are still “up in the air,” is real and it greatly affects both children and parents.

The mental health status of our children is of timely importance as current national health statistics from October 2020 are showing genuinely concerning numbers. Children, ages 5-11, who have a mental health diagnosis like ADHD, depression, anxiety issues, and/or a history of panic or suicidal thoughts, as well as those children who have never been officially diagnosed but experience symptoms associated with these disorders, are 24% more likely to end up being admitted to an inpatient unit during perceived times of distress. “Perceived” is an especially important word. I will explain.

Back-to-School Anxiety during COVID-19 Pandemic 2
With so much uncertainty thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, back-to-school anxiety can cause immense strain on the mental health of both children and parents. Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash.

Three Key Mindsets

There are a few simple attitudinal choices we can each make to guide us through de-quarantining safely. These first suggestions were acquired through research on resiliency following Hurricane Katrina. Families who made positive progress during those early recovery months when we needed to determine home, work, and school simultaneously incorporated 3 key mindsets:

  • Compassion. It’s important to be patient with yourself and one another while circumstances are in constant flux. This is especially true when we are being told how to live our daily lives by an outside authority. Keep in mind that being compassionate has the ability to makes us emotionally stronger.
  • Responsibility. It’s common behavior to choose to blame another person when we experience negative emotions. It’s even easier to do when the ‘other’ is a governmental entity, like the CDC, politicians, and federal administrations because there is no actual physical interaction. However, by taking responsibility for how we address events, we retain our individual sense of true power and control, thus lowering our distress levels. So, take responsibility by making that decision about how you and your family need to interact in each situation.
  • Quality. Traumatic events and distressing times, like death, divorce, severe weather, chronic or terminal health diagnoses, and so many others, have taught us one unbelievably valuable life lesson. The quality of my experience with you is so much more meaningful than the number of my belongings, meaning the stress we share shows we can thrive and appreciate how capable we are together. (Making Stress your Friend)

Seven Ways to Prepare

Now that you and I are interacting with a more helpful attitude that values compassion, responsibility, and quality, let us begin identifying how we can prepare our children for the all-important full return to the classroom. (Note: Please keep in mind that individual medical and mental health statuses must be considered unique to your situation for each of these suggestions.)

  1. Plan for your family’s needs
    Read and keep up on your children’s school policies on safety precautions so that you are able to decide on the needs of your children as protocols evolve with the pandemic’s status. Coordinate frequent teacher consultations to stay abreast of any changes in how your children are behaving while at school as this is a great resource for early warning signs as well as opportunities to acknowledge recovery.
  2. Have a family meeting
    Regular family talks are invaluable to children’s mental health. The list of benefits for all of us, old and young, is amazing and deserving of another topic altogether. As parents, please make time to provide an open space whereby your children experience you as genuinely interested in all of their experiences. Specifically, regarding return to the classroom, the discussion needs to focus on each person sharing their fears, hopes, and confusions. As a parent, your role is to listen without judgment, share yours in a manner that affirms what they feel is normal (because it is, we all have fears, hopes, and confusions about de-quarantining and re-engaging fully), and then be encouraging. We are all doing this thing together.
  3. Address concerns with equality in mind
    It is normal that children want to share about their day and for teenagers to want to share some aspects and hold private other aspects of their day. Re-entry following the past year or more of learning virtually is both physically and mentally exhausting as well as irritating and discouraging. Slow down. Think. Then engage in a conversation about their emotional outbursts or withdrawal to their room without a greeting. As parents, we hold the key to encouraging their openness with us. Listening with curiosity and acceptance before we listen as guardians of their growth and safety is a valuable tool, especially with teens. Our children can tell when we are listening to connect and join with them. Try remembering your similar youth experiences from the perspective of the emotional viewpoint because the story may be the same, slightly different, or completely unlike your own. However, the feelings – hurt, jealous, mad, overjoyed, curious, awed, left out – are how we connect as human beings.
  4. Monitor everyone’s mental health status
    That teacher consult will give you clues as to what to talk about as you keep loving watch of your children’s adjustment and re-entry into full-time classroom status. There are a few general changes you can also keep a lookout for emotional and/or physical withdrawal; less communicative; eating more or less or sleeping more or less (whichever is opposite of their norm); changes in their mood; unexplainable physical complaints (e.g., stomach aches, headaches, hair loss, body aches, skin picking, nail-biting, etc.); temper flairs, and/or losses in their developmental milestones.
  5. Keep in mind that change is an adjustment for all
    Reintegration takes tons of effort from each of us, especially since the guidelines keep changing. The best solution for this is to work with the resistance. Make it a teachable moment. Identify an interest of your child that you can connect science to and then guide them to see that science facts change because science is an active learning event. For example, how it took many experiments with decayed plants and animals for scientists to eventually figure out how to turn the material left behind on the Earth’s crust into carbon and hydrogen to fuel our cars in better and safer ways. The first cars could not go near as fast as cars today.
  6. Be flexible and adaptable
    Taking the time to keep up to date on current CDC guidelines, your state’s phase status and your children’s school protocols will provide the exact information you need to know what needs to be in your family’s care plan. Rigidity and stubbornness have the ability to be helpful for the moment it is decided, but not for future moments. The rules of engagement continue to change as more people choose whether to vaccinate or not to vaccinate. On a smaller scale, this is the same flexibility adaptability you have used in the grocery store when you have planned a meal and certain ingredients are not available. You may feel discouraged, disheartened, anxious, or even angry, yet you have gotten creative and identified another solution.
  7. Have daily check-ins
    While sitting around the table for your family’s evening meal or breakfast the next morning, just take a brief minute for a round-robin “how’s life today” or “any weird dreams” sharing event. Take an intentional look, listen with curiosity, and connect with your emotional self. Just let them know you hear each one, you see each one, and you care for each one. This simple moment will go an exceedingly long way when your child or teen feels disheartened, and you are physically not there.
Back-to-School Anxiety during COVID-19 Pandemic
Children are highly adaptable but constant uncertainty can take a big toll on mental health, especially as students again transition from online classes to in-person and, because of COVID-19 variants, face the future possibility of needing to go back to online. Photo by Thomas Park on Unsplash.

Backup Plans

Finally, burnout, isolation, stress, anxiety, and irritability are all normal reactions to pandemic fatigue as well as walking through the early phases of its recovery. The best natural medicine to help each of us through this comes from neuroscience research. Build a new neurotransmitter in your brain by practicing a positive emotion each day for 10 minutes. (Stuck in a Rut)

  • Choose to play a game in which you are like a mime. Turn around and go from down to peppy.
  • Recall a positive moment in your life and share the story with someone you are near.
  • Have a “who can tell the best pun” competition.
  • Exchange a back rub for a scalp massage.
  • Choose human connection instead of isolation.
  • Show your family members or friends how to give themselves a pat on the back for their efforts
  • Set the tone in your home that you want others to have as well.

What else should you know about Back-to-School Anxiety?

Watch this video of family and marriage therapist Susan Harrington, founder of Maison Vie New Orleans, discuss the mental health of children and tips on how you can help your kids cope with back-to-school anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic and prepare mentally for the school year. You can also contact us to see how we can help guide you and your family through counseling sessions.