Back-to-School Anxiety: Coping With Uncertainty10 March 2021
Robyn Mehlenbeck, Ph.D :
Returning to school may help children address increasing mental health issues.
Safe return to school, which includes addressing anxiety about returning to school in person and anxiety from those children staying virtual, is critical.
Parents are the key to helping their children with whatever decision they have made, whether it is to safely return to school in person, which is not a "return to normal," or finishing the school year virtually.
As school systems across the country move toward bringing children back to school in person, parents' anxiety has increased yet again, despite thinking it was already at an all-time high. The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly supports children's safe return to school (AAP, 2021). Some parents are reluctant to send their kids back in person regardless of availability of the vaccine. Either way, few of us are talking directly to our kids to see what they need. The real question is: "What can we do to help our children through this next phase?"
While some children have been attending school in person for months, most have not. Most schools have been virtual, posing a variety of problems from basic access to technology to the damage caused by staring at a screen for hours to the anxiety and depression due to isolation from other students. Most professionals agree that mental health concerns for children are at an all-time high, with ER visits for mental health concerns increasing (Leeb, et al., 2020).
Parents are struggling to work and oversee their children at the same time. Teachers are being asked to do the near-impossible by maintaining online and in-person teaching concurrently while preserving their own health and that of their families. One teacher recently shared her plan with me on how to talk to a child privately, whether in person or online. Both came with issues, including not leaving "one class or the other" unsupervised, yet how important it is to her for each child to feel that they can talk with the teacher privately.
Most professionals agree that children are generally better off in school-but these are not "general" normal times. Parents are being asked to make these decisions, and children are being asked to follow their parents wishes. I am hearing time and time again, "Is this the right decision?"
Sitting with my teen daughter watching a town hall about returning to in-person classes two days per week, one parent took a look at the cafeteria set up for social distancing and safety and made a comment about how it "looked like a prison." My daughter just sighed and asked what the purpose of returning was if she couldn't be with her friends (her closest friends are going in person on opposite days!). Kids returning to school are struggling to know what to expect, how they are going to sit all day in masks, and how they can eat safely. They are worried about how they will follow the rules and whether their classmates will as well.
Kids who are staying entirely virtual are also struggling with anxiety. We tend to forget about them with much of the focus on those returning to the classroom. Worries about if they will be left behind, friends will get together without them, teachers will pay more attention to kids in the classroom than those on the computer.
What can parents do to help their kids, whether they are remaining virtual or going back in person? Here are several key tips to help you and your child move forward:
1. Talk to your kids.
Don't talk over or around them. Kids of all ages hear more than you think! For younger kids, ask them what they know about school, what they are talking about with their friends, and what they're worried about. For older kids and teens, straight talk is best: Ask what their worries are, how they are managing with school and with their friends, what they want to know about the decision to stay virtual or go back.
2. Ensure your kids have control over something.
Let your child have some say in what they do regarding school. Younger children can have a "forced choice" in that you can give them two options to choose from. For example, if they are going back in person, you might ask them whether they want to take the bus or be driven in to school. On a smaller level, they can pick out their favorite pens/pencils and notebooks to take. Any control is helpful when there is a situation full of uncertainty. Older children or teens might have tremendous insight into what will work best for them at this point of the year.
3. Remind your kids that they are not "returning to normal" by going back.
Everything is different and will be different for a while. That is OK-just different. If children have a chance to see their school, classes, and cafeteria (and see that it is not like a prison!) before they return to school, it will help them know what to expect.
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Then talk about how to make the best of the situation. Rather than focusing on the negative aspects of school, remind them that everyone is doing their best in a very difficult situation to keep everyone safe and to help them learn in the best way that they can. There are no "right" answers-just a lot of people who care deeply about our children, trying hard to do their best for them.
4. Set aside some non-screen time daily for you and your kids.
Even if it is 15 minutes when no screens are on, this encourages other activities that can be restorative. Whether it's having a dance party to music, blowing bubbles to relax and smile, or taking a family walk, use your creativity to come up with a short but fun activity that will help decrease family stress.
5. Take care of yourself.
As a parent, it is very easy to fall back on the negative, particularly when there is change and uncertainty. There has been so much grief, hardship, and difficulty throughout this pandemic. Trying to take a few minutes a day to remind yourself of anything you are grateful for-whether it is health, the sun shining, or even going for a short walk-will help you model behavior that shows your children that they too can make it through.
(Robyn Mehlenbeck, Ph.D., ABPP, is a Clinical Child and Adolescent Board Certified Psychologist, Fellow of the American Psychological Association, Clinical Professor, and Director of the George Mason University Center for Psychological Services).