Parents, Our Therapist Has Answers for All Your Back-to-School Questions

child fixing mask on mother's face

The beginning of the school year usually brings a mixture of excitement, anxiety and uncertainty. This school year is in some ways no different — parents are still rushing to buy supplies, kids are thinking of friends they will connect with, and teachers are preparing their lessons. The difference is that truly almost everything else has changed. Our world has endured the most dangerous pandemic in modern history; it has changed almost everything about how we live, how we work, and how we relate to one another.

One of the biggest changes we will see is how children are educated. Many will be returning to schools that look different than the ones they left, while others will adapt to new modes of learning online. As you cope with the uncertainties ahead, here are ways to support yourself and your child during this chaotic time.

How do I explain the “new normal” to my kids?

First, get as many facts as you can and communicate those in an age appropriate way to your child. Leaving them in the dark will only increase their anxiety and your own frustration. When communicating the plan for the upcoming school year, choose a day and time when things are calm and your child is typically regulated. Invite them to ask questions and give feedback. Remind them that, while you may not be able to meet all of their requests, you will do your best to be as accommodating as you can.

How can I check on my child’s mental health?

Allow your child space to express their feelings without judgement. Set a regular time each week to listen to your child express themselves in whatever way is most comfortable for them. If they are not comfortable talking, encourage them to journal and share as they feel comfortable. If they are more artistically expressive, encourage them to play a song for you that communicates what they are feeling inside or have them draw a picture that expresses their emotions.

How can I help their social development?

Identify ways to help keep your child’s outside connections alive. Chances are there will be very few extra-curricular activities and after school meetups, even if your child is returning to school in person. Encourage them to connect with friends by writing letters to one another, texting jokes they find, and if a friend and the friend’s family are comfortable, meeting up for a socially distanced playdate outdoors.

How can I help them cope with a lack of routine?

Creating an environment of openness, as well as making a regular time for connection within and outside of the home will serve as a protective factor for your child. In all of this, be sure to take care of yourself and set an example of self-care for your child. Model that it is OK to grieve the loss of life as it once was and give yourselves grace as you figure out a new normal together.

I am so nervous, how do I avoid putting my anxiety on my kid?

Be honest with your kid about where you are and the difficulty that you and many others are feeling. Avoid the temptation to hide your feelings, as kids can usually sense what is going on even when we say nothing. Take time to care for yourself by using relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, when your anxiety becomes too high. Give your children permission to name their feelings and also to feel them fully as they experience them.

I feel like I get little information from my 7-year-old. How will I know he’s adjusting?

Set up regular check-in times to allow your child to process their feelings. Allow them to direct this time themself and if they choose to say nothing, let them know that is OK and you’re here whenever they want to talk. Doing an interactive activity together can also stimulate conversation and take the pressure off of your child so they don’t feel like they have to talk the whole time.

Are there signs or signals I should look out for to know that my child is struggling?

If your child’s behavior begins regressing for a significant period of time, usually over two weeks to a month, that may be an indicator that they’re struggling to adjust. A couple of other signals include a drop in school assessments of more than two letter grades and a prolonged decrease in their desire to engage in activities they previously enjoyed.

What’s the best way to let my daughter know that she will get through this?

Keep a solid routine for things that are within your control. Children’s safety is built on routine and the well-being of the whole family. So knowing that she has a stable foundation even when things get hard makes a world of difference. Help her to recall hard things she has done before. Even reading a book about someone overcoming obstacles can serve as a powerful example.

I have high school aged kids. I’m worried they won’t put in enough effort into their school work or get sufficiently organized, but they refuse my help. What do I do?

Help set up time blocks for when certain tasks and assignments need to be done, that way older children have flexibility to complete tasks but also some autonomy in setting their schedule and pace. Also, delay privileges (i.e., social media and video games) until responsibilities (i.e., schoolwork and chores) are completed.

My teenager is super anxious about going back to school, how do I help calm an older kid’s nerves?

Choose a news source that is credible and look at it together for the latest updates. Commit to only researching news and media at set times of the day so they have a way to get accurate information, without being flooded by a never ending stream of media. Make regular time as a family to practice relaxation techniques such as yoga, Tai Chi, or progressive relaxation. Lastly, identify ways your teen can keep themselves safe when they return, and role play ways they will handle difficult situations such as classmates not wearing a masks.

My kid does best when there’s a plan in place. Right now, our district is delayed and is super unorganized. How do I help my kid when I don’t know what’s happening myself?

As much as you can, focus on the facts you do know. If your child is older, encourage them to call the district or write an email to express their frustrations. Come up with 2-3 scenarios of what you believe may happen and make a loose plan for those. Lastly, remind them that they are capable of doing hard things and being flexible when the situation calls for it. Reminisce about times when they have had to adjust and were able to thrive. This will help to give your child some sense of control while recognizing that even when things don’t go as planned, they are capable of coping.

While this year will be far different than any other in recent memory, that doesn’t mean that we can’t come together and support our children in ways that in the end help them to be more resilient and capable. While we might not necessarily look back on this year with fondness, it could be a chance to come together, grow, and learn from a challenging circumstance. If you feel like you could benefit from more support, speaking with a licensed online mental health professional can provide relief.

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