Children are incredibly resilient. They are capable of working through challenges and bouncing back from difficulties.
Even with the transition back to school in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, most children will feel an initial mixture of excitement and jitters, and they’ll ultimately adapt back to the school routine.
At the same time, some increase in anxiety is to be expected with the transition back to in-person school. Parents can be proactive in supporting their children during this adjustment and decrease the risk of jitters leading to anxiety disorders.
[READ: How to Overcome Social Anxiety.]
What Steps Can Parents Take to Support Their Children?
1. Follow the flight attendants’ guidance and place the oxygen mask over your own mouth and nose before assisting others, including your children.
Flight attendants emphasize putting your oxygen mask on first because you won’t be able to help those around you if you run out of oxygen. Similarly, parents need to take care of their own physical and emotional health to be able to support their children and serve as a healthy role model.
Many parents are under tremendous stress and are anxious about their children returning to school. It’s important for parents to find ways to manage their own anxiety as children are very sensitive to their parents’ feelings, and anxiety can be contagious.
Parents can find practical ways to take care of themselves, such as:
— Going for a brief walk.
— Calling a friend.
— Watching a favorite show with their partner.
— Taking a few deep breaths throughout the day to ground themselves.
Parents can also take the opportunity to talk to their children about how the parent is feeling and how they cope. Modeling emotion labeling and healthy coping skills is one of the most important ways that parents can support their child.
2. Talk to your child in an age-appropriate manner.
Early elementary age: Keep it simple. Ask how the return to school is going. What have been the highs and lows with the return to in-person school? Avoid leading questions such as, “What are you worrying about with school?” since your child is not necessarily worried. Reassure that the child is doing what they can do to be safe ( wearing masks, washing hands, social distancing) and that the adults at the school are working hard to keep the teachers and students safe as well.
Upper elementary and middle school: Help the child learn how to distinguish from rumors and facts. Check in on how school is going. Ask how they like their teacher, what subjects they like and if there any challenging ones, or the names of their friends and what their interests are. Discuss the importance of following health guidelines to take care of one another.
High school: Ask how school is going both socially and academically. Provide honest, factual information. Engage in problem-solving and decision-making. Discuss issues or topics in more depth and ask for their opinions with explanations.
3. Validate children and be confident in their abilities to work through challenges.
Many parents find that children will often respond with one-word answers to their questions about school. That makes it even more important to validate whatever your child says about school to encourage their sharing with parents about their experiences.
When children feel heard and validated by their parents, this strengthens the parent-child relationship, which is protective for many psychiatric risks, including anxiety, and increases the likelihood of children actively communicating with their parents.
Contrary to what many parents think, to validate your child does not mean you are agreeing with them. Instead, validation means to acknowledge the validity of what someone is saying and feeling. For example, “That makes sense that you’re feeling like you hate school right now especially with your friends being in a different class.” This does not mean as a parent, you agree that they should hate school, but that you understand that is how their child is feeling.
After validating whatever they say, sometimes it may take some effort for the parent to find the kernel of truth in whatever the child or adolescent states; then parents can follow up with questions and support problem-solving and perspective-taking. Many parents feel understandably anxious when their child expresses discomfort or distress and quickly jump into fix-it mode, which can feel invalidating and frustrating for children. Validation helps set up a smoother communication and interaction.
At the same time, research is informing the importance of balancing validating the child while expressing confidence in their child’s ability to face and manage challenges. Rather than swooping in and rescuing their child during a challenge, parents can validate the difficulty while also helping their child gradually build up their tolerance to discomfort for their healthy development, foster resilience and decrease the risk for anxiety disorders.
4. Set consistent routines.
Children feel secure (and, therefore, more confident and less anxious) when their daily routines are familiar and predictable. A consistent schedule gives children a predictable, calmer day.
This means having a consistent bedtime and bedtime routine that ensures adequate relaxation and sleep, which then helps children be more rested in the morning. A consistent wake up and breakfast routine, as well has having clothes picked out and backpacks packed the evening before, will help decrease feeling rushed in the morning and can help set up a more calm day. An after school routine of snack, relaxation, extracurriculars, homework and downtime/playtime helps set up a smoother transition to bedtime.
5. Prioritize health.
Healthy bodies and healthy minds are deeply interconnected. Make sure children are getting adequate sleep, physical activity and healthy nutrition.
For example, children ages 3-5 should sleep 10 to 13 hours (including naps) each day; children ages 6-12 should sleep 9 to 12 hours each night; and teenagers should sleep 8 to 10 hours per night to promote optimal health.
Find fun ways for your child to get adequate physical activity by finding an extracurricular that your child enjoys and has an active component, such as joining a sports team, swimming, gymnastics, dance or martial arts. Physical activity benefits physical health and helps decrease anxiety and stress while improving focus and mood.
Health is also impacted by social connection and support. Parents can check in on how friendships and peer interactions are going — especially after the last year — in which many children missed opportunities to practice social skills. Parents may help facilitate outdoor compatible playmates to help strengthen social connection and skills for their children.
When Should Parents Be Concerned?
While most children will adapt smoothly back to school, childhood anxiety disorders are the most common childhood mental health condition and throughout the pandemic, childhood psychiatric conditions have doubled.
Therefore, it’s important that parents are aware of what concerning signs to look out for. Warning signs vary depending on age, and may indicate the need for professional treatment if they persist for multiple weeks.
Preschoolers may show a regression in behaviors, such as:
— Thumb sucking.
— Sleep disturbances.
— Changes in appetite.
— Physical symptoms (body aches).
— An increased fear of the dark.
Elementary school children may have more:
— Clingy behaviors.
— Sleep disturbances.
— Difficulty with focus.
— Somatic complaints (headaches, stomachaches, nausea).
— School avoidance.
— Withdrawal from activities and friends.
Adolescents can have more:
— Agitation with increased conflict with family and friends.
— Loss of interest in previous areas of interest.
— Physical complaints.
— Delinquent behaviors.
— Difficulty with focus.
— Sleeping and eating disturbances.
— School avoidance.
If parents are seeing signs that indicate kids might be suffering from more serious cases of anxiety, they should talk to their pediatrician.
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