As COVID-19 cases in the area decrease, a growing number of children are returning to in-person school. Many children are excited to return to school in person. However, for scores of children and adolescents, that excitement may also be accompanied by apprehension, nervousness, and/or anxiety. There are a number of reasons that children may be feeling uneasy about their return to school. For one, the very nature of in-person school is vastly different now than it was a little over a year ago. That is, due to safety protocols and (in many cases) hybrid models of learning, various aspects of a typical school day may feel foreign to children. For example, many children will perceive differences in their daily schedules and routines, the nature and content of instruction, classroom/school rules and regulations, and how many (and which) peers are learning in person alongside them, amongst other things. Additionally, all these changes can serve as constant reminders to children that COVID-19 has infiltrated every aspect of their lives and remains a constant, looming threat, especially when they are outside the safety of their own homes. Related to this concern, there is ongoing uncertainty regarding whether or not children will be exposed to COVID-19 and/or have to return to online schooling unexpectedly due to potential exposures to COVID-19. Also, many children have grown accustomed to being at home with their families and may fear being separated from their family members. Finally, after months of virtual social interaction, children may feel less confident in their ability to interact with peers and teachers in real life. Due to considerations such as these, children who already experience anxiety may suffer from heightened levels of nervousness/worry upon returning to in-person school. Furthermore, even children who don’t typically experience clinical levels of anxiety may be impacted by increased levels of stress regarding going back to school. Fortunately, there is a lot that parents can do at home to serve as a helpful resource for their children as they navigate through this confusing, unprecedented time.
Tips for Parents:
1.Validate your childrens’ feelings: When children are experiencing anxiety, it is important for them to feel heard and understood. Therefore, it can be helpful to communicate that you understand why they feel the way they do. To avoid overly reinforcing the anxiety, you can accompany messages of validation with messages of confidence that they will be able to handle it. For example, “I understand why you are worried to go back to school, and I know that you can do it!”
2. Reflect on their past bravery: Even when you communicate your confidence in your children to be able to do tough things, they may continue to struggle with their own confidence in themselves. Therefore, it can be helpful to guide your child to reflect on the ways in which they have persisted through fear and discomfort in the past. Within this discussion, you can lead them to reflect on times that they felt afraid in the past, how they were able to overcome fear by doing something difficult, how it felt to overcome that fear, and what they learned about themselves from that experience. Additionally, you can both validate their fear and reinforce their bravery by sharing stories of times that you felt very nervous to do something new and it turned out OK because you were brave.
3. Focus on the positive: Fear and anxiety can cause children to see things through a negative lens. When they are anxious about what could happen when they go back to school, their minds may perseverate on the negative possibilities, even when those negative outcomes are not the most likely to occur. You can help your child expand their expectations to be more realistic by asking questions regarding the exciting and positive possibilities that going back to school could bring. For example, “What do you hope happens today? What are you excited about?” Questions such as these can help children recognize that good things may also come out of change, and they won’t have the chance to experience these good things unless they push themselves out of their comfort zones.
4. Avoid providing too much reassurance about safety-related questions: When children are experiencing heightened levels of anxiety, they may ask an excessive amount of reassurance-seeking questions as a way of coping (e.g., “Will I get sick?” “Will I bring COVID home and get my family sick?” “Will I have to go back online?”). Although providing reassurance can help children in the short-term, it does not provide the opportunity for children to develop internal coping skills to assist them in withstanding discomfort in the long-run. Additionally, parents do not know the answers to many of these questions, and it is often unhelpful to stretch the truth to provide children with a false sense of security. Therefore, instead of providing reassurance (e.g., “You’ll be fine.” “You probably won’t have to go back online.”), it can be helpful to provide factual information. (e.g., “It’s hard to say whether you will be exposed to COVID while you’re at school, and taking the recommended safety precautions can help keep you safe.”). Other information you could consider sharing with them could include what the adults at their school are doing to keep the environment safe, what they can do to help themselves stay safe, and what we know about COVID-19 as opposed to what are rumors/myths.
5. Maintain a daily routine before and after school: Like many of us, childrens’ current outlook regarding the future is uncertain. When a plethora of variables feel like they are constantly in flux, children may gain a sense of security from sticking to a predictable, daily routine at home. This routine could include simple things such as a daily check in asking your child to share a “thumbs up and a thumbs down” from the day when you see them after school. It could also incorporate self-care activities that can aid in anxiety management, such as breathing strategies, meditations, journaling, etc. When so much of their lives are uncertain, children will appreciate at least knowing what to expect at home.
6. Finally, if your child exhibits heightened levels of emotional distress that are impacting their daily functioning and you are not able to manage/control their symptoms on your own, we recommend that you seek help from a mental health provider.
By Meghan McMackin, PhD, Supervised by: Misti Nicholson, PsyD