Back To School: How To Help Children Adapt To A New Normal

Aug 21, 2020

Child mental health care workers say families will likely face increased anxiety as schools reopen. Some classes will be in-person, online, or a mix of both.

Dr. David Fitzgerald, the director of the UConn Health Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Outpatient Clinic, said school this year comes with a lot of added stress. In school, there could be requirements for face coverings, social distancing, potential temperature checks and COVID-19 testing. At home, there’s distance learning and screen time.

"The larger, the bigger thing, is just the unknown,” Fitzgerald said. “What is going to happen, what is it going to be? And that is a pretty ripe opportunity for anxiety."

But even though the future looks uncertain, Fitzgerald said it’s important for parents to remain calm.

"As the leader of the ship here, the captain of the ship, parents need to model calm, and that can come from knowing as much as possible about what the plan is, and doing whatever they need to do to get themselves calm," he said.

Build Structure

Parents need to plan for the future, maintain structure, for both themselves and their children, and keep up with what’s going on with school policies — and be able to go with the flow if circumstances change.

"First is, let's get back to a routine and a structure,” Fitzgerald said. “A lot of times, that slides away in the summer, understandably. Bedtimes move, mealtimes get scattered, and that's not unusual but we had a three or four month head start on that, with going out of school, so many people's schedules are sort of wildly out of whack compared to what it would be on a regular school day."

Just Listen

It’s important for parents to pay attention to their children’s emotions.

“Parents know their children best,” Fitzgerald said, “if they're starting to see signs that indicate that the child is more stressed, whether that's through eating, sleeping, play, interactions, you might need to take extra time to spend with each child.”

He said parents should make time to spend with each child, and ask about their concerns and feelings — especially since children might be worried about different things than their parents.

“We might be concerned about illness, and the child contracting the virus, whereas he or she might be worried about what if I don't get to see my friends,” he said. “We need to hear what their concerns are. We can't promise things we can't deliver, but try to answer as honestly as we can and take time to understand what their concerns are.”

Fitzgerald said parents can teach their children relaxation and deep breathing skills to help. There are apps and websites that can help.

For instance, Headspace is an app that offers guided meditation and articles on how to manage mental health. Happify is another app that offers activities to help relieve stress, and the app MoodMission teaches coping skills.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America has compiled a list of resources on how to navigate increased anxiety due to COVID-19. The National Institute of Mental Health offers resources as well, in addition to local governments and libraries.

Professional therapy and psychiatric help are also an option.

Identifying Anxiety

Parents know their children best — but it can be hard to identify anxiety triggers for their children. And there could be plenty with going back to school in a pandemic.

"The big decision is not about what backpack to buy anymore, it's, you know, dealing with a lot of feelings and change, so we are anticipating a lot of anxiety, both from parents and kids," said Shari Lurie, senior director of clinical services at the South Shore Child Guidance Center with EPIC Long Island, a mental health and resource center.

“If your child is feeling anxious about returning or not returning, connecting to the school — the guidance counselors, the social workers, certainly outpatient clinics, to help the child and make that person in the school aware that your child is really struggling,” Lurie said. “Tell your child they can go and talk to this person if they're feeling anxious during the day. Have a contact person.”

Give Them Space

Parents, your kids might just want space from you.

“Going to school is a break for a lot of these kids, and they weren't getting the break from what could be tumultuous family life. It raised their depression, their anxiety, just feeling upset, so definitely, sometimes spending more time with the families was very difficult,” Lurie said.

Debra Cahill, Children’s Services Clinic Supervisor at EPIC Long Island, said children have gone through a lot this year that has done a number to their mental health.

“Families are also dealing with a lot of added stress that may not necessarily translate into anxiety,” Cahill said. “Financial stress is certainly something that a lot of families are feeling right now. A lot of job losses, unstable housing, and these are things that, while children may not be directly involved in this, they are aware of what's going on in the house.”

“They could also be dealing with some grieving, if they have lost a family member, or friends of the family to the virus,” she said. “There may be some of that going on as well. I think that children may also be confused, because they all of a sudden have these rules they need to follow, and not everybody is following the rules.”

WorryWiseKids.org is one resource for parents with anxious kids. It’s run by a child psychologist, and offers resources and tips on how to help children manage their anxiety. Child trauma experts have published a list of tips and resources for supporting children’s emotional health during COVID-19 on Child Trends, a research organization focused on children.

The Calm app — aimed at improving sleep, meditation and relaxation — includes a section for kids. Smiling Mind also offers meditation programs for children.

Jennifer Colbert, vice president of clinic services at South Shore Child Guidance Center with EPIC Long Island, said parents aren’t going to have all the answers.

"I think it's also important for the parents to understand that they don't have to have all the answers, because of course, none of us have all the answers, we can't, and to feel comfortable with that, and to just try their best and feel comfortable just not knowing," she said.