Back to School Part 1: Coping with Anxiety

September 15, 2020

The back-to-school transition can be challenging for kids in the best of times. This year, COVID-19 adds new layers of complexity. By being prepared and knowing what to watch for, parents and caregivers can smooth some of the bumps in the road – for kids and themselves.   

Set expectations. Knowing what’s coming is an important part of easing fear and anxiety. Help your child understand that school will be different this fall. Desks will be farther apart. Teachers and students will wear masks. Your classroom will probably also be your lunchroom. The school format might change during the year to keep people healthy and safe.

Acknowledge the challenges. When we’re wearing masks and conversing over screens, we lose a wealth of social cues – and that can make communication stressful. State these facts, and ask your child if he or she finds this hard – or just different, recommend experts at the Child Mind Institute in New York, N.Y. By pinpointing what’s worrisome, you can then take steps to help. It might be alerting a teacher that participating in online chats is challenging. Or helping your child practice conversations over screens with a person she is completely comfortable with, like an aunt or sibling.    

Keep communicating. Talk with your child about his experiences at school. Ask open questions like “Did anything funny happen today?” or “What was the best part of your day?” instead of “How was school today?” Ask about interactions with classmates and teachers. When you know  how kids are feeling, you can reassure let them that those feelings are normal.

Keep routines in place. Structure is reassuring to kids of all ages. It provides predictable patterns that are even more essential when much of life is uncertain.

Morning: Wake up. Get dressed. Have breakfast and getting ready to move into school mode. 

Midday: Lunch plus a break for outdoor play, a game or a book, or some social time to catch up with friends.

Late afternoon: Exercise, outdoor fun, chores, homework.

Evening: Family time during or after dinner. Reading before bed. For younger children, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the tried-and-true Book, Brush, Bed routine.

Know what to watch for. When school is underway, keep an eye on your child’s behavior. Kids show stress and anxiety in different ways. Some get moody and emotional. Some worry more or are less cheerful and talkative. Others might overeat, eat less, or gravitate toward foods that aren’t so good for them. Some might have trouble concentrating on school work, or find it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep.

Look into school support. There may be more resources for kids who are coping with school-related anxiety. Start with this list from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • Are there plans to help students adapt to virtual learning and hybrid-learning formats?
  • Is there a plan to make social-emotional health part of class curriculum?
  • Can you provide tips for kids to practice mindfulness and coping strategies?
  • Are there plans to help kids avoid social isolation when remote learning is in place?
  • Are there mental health services for students who need support?

Add extra love. If you can find a pocket of 10 to 20 minutes to be with your child each day, the extra support can go a long way in a challenging time. You don’t have to talk. Toss a ball back and forth, doodle on scrap paper together, play Go Fish, read a story or talk about a headline in the news, play with a pet together, or just snuggle.

Take care of you. Kids aren’t the only ones feeling extra stress, as you probably well know. Aside from giving yourself the benefits of the best sleep, eating and exercise routines you can, have your own coping strategies at the ready. Apps like Headspace and Calm offer free guided exercises to help you stay in the moment and keep your mind from racing. Most days, take a few minutes to write down what’s on your mind in a notebook or a document on your laptop. Expressing your thoughts can help get the chaos out of your head and onto paper. It can also help you identify things that trigger worry ,as well as harmful negative messages you might be telling yourself. 

Don’t expect to have all the answers. When you’re stuck, reach out for help, for yourself or your child. Your pediatrician or primary care doctor is a great place to start for help with anxiety. You can also explore these resources:

Back to School Planning, U.S. Centers for Disease Control

How to Help Children Build Resilience in Uncertain Times, American Academy of Pediatrics

Helping Children cope with the COVID-19 Pandemic, Yale Child Study Center

Discussing Coronovirus with Your Children, Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress, Uniformed Services University