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Easing Back-to-School Stress for Children during COVID-19

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As COVID-19 cases continue to climb, many parents are finding it overwhelming and stressful to manage the emotions of themselves and their children. And with some children having returned to the classroom while other areas of society have restrictions, it can be confusing to explain to children what is and isn’t safe behaviour at this time. If you are facing these challenges, you are not alone.

We asked CDI Psychologist Dr. Nora Klemencic some of the most burning questions about parenting and the return to the classroom during the 2020 school year.

Q: How do we offer information to children, particularly young children, in a way that helps them understand the importance of following guidelines (like wearing masks) without going too far and frightening them, or giving them elevated anxiety?

A: Parents can work to be sensitive to their child’s emotional state and take cues from their child in terms of how much information they need.  For example, you might share very simple information with a young child such as, “We need to wear masks and not touch each other to help stay healthy.”  Then, depending on the child’s level of interest and follow-up questions, you can share more (for example: “There is a new virus that can make people sick – it’s called coronavirus”). If a child seems distressed, it can sometimes be helpful to discuss fears and clear up misinformation. Modelling the use of masks, washing hands, and staying physically distant while maintaining a calm attitude is important. Parents can also make sure to remind or correct their children about healthy practices in a calm way.

Q: What behaviours can a parent/caregiver model that will ease the transition of back-to-school for their children? On the flip side, what behaviours should parents/caregivers be aware of that could be detrimental when displaying in front of their children?

A: Parents can convey a sense of confidence in their child’s ability to cope with the start of the new school year (“you got this!”). Talking to children about what to expect. and practising some of the new expected behaviours ahead of time (e.g., wearing a mask, washing hands, playing with a friend without being physically close) can be helpful. Getting into a more structured routine at home is also helpful, so that children are used to waking up, eating and sleeping at around the same times.

Parents can inadvertently communicate to their child that they do not believe that they have the skills to succeed by appearing anxious whenever the topic of school comes up, or by avoiding the discussion of the upcoming transition altogether. As a parent, it’s very important to manage your own anxiety (very natural under the circumstances!) in a healthy way, so that your child is less likely to have increased anxiety of their own and also so that your child learns from your example about coping with distress and uncertainty.

Q: If a child is extremely anxious about returning to the classroom, what are some actionable strategies that a parent/caregiver can take to ease those concerns and help them to feel confident? 

A: Depending on the child’s cognitive/language skills, a parent may first try to better understand their child’s fears and to clear up any misunderstandings or offer information that is more realistic. For example, a child might assume that going to school means that they and their family members will get sick and die. Giving your child accurate information that you also believe, e.g., “When people wear masks, wash hands, and don’t touch each other, they are less likely to get sick”, or “The school would not open and Mom would not let you go back if they thought it was very likely that you and your family would get sick and die.”  Identify some simple statements that can be repeated in your child’s mind (“I can do things to stay healthy”; “My Mom says it’s OK to go to school right now”; “I can be brave”).

Making sure children are aware of the things that they can control, such as mask wearing and hand washing, and practising those behaviours ahead of time can help them feel more confident about coping in the school setting. Practising preventative behaviours while out in the community, in particular, can be helpful. Taking care of physical health in other ways (e.g., eating nutritious food, getting enough sleep, and exercising daily) can also be part of the way kids and families feel more in charge when so many things are beyond their control. Finally, practising deep breathing and other physical relaxation practices can also be helpful tools.

Q: There have been projections that anxiety and mental health challenges could be widespread this year, particularly with children who have not faced these challenges in the past.  What behaviours should parents keep an eye on to determine what is an ordinary level of stress and anxiety vs. when it may be time to seek out help professionally for their child?

A: If anxiety or anxious-avoidance starts to interfere in a child’s life in some way (e.g., academically, socially, family life), then it may be helpful to reach out for help.  Although it’s typical to experience higher levels of distress during times of uncertainty/significant changes, professional support could also be indicated for a child who seems to be experiencing much higher levels of distress compared to their own baseline, compared to peers, and for much longer than expected (e.g., not adjusting to a new situation long after majority of peers seem to have adjusted).

For additional parent/caregiver resources and support, please visit our COVID-19 Resource Centre, or call us at 416-603-1827.