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Helping your child navigate back-to-school anxiety during COVID-19

Father helps his child put a mask on

Back-to-school this year will be unlike any other due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are some tips to help parents and kids talk about COVID-19 and returning to the classroom. Dr. Karen Wang, a child and youth psychiatrist and Dr. Joanna Mansfield a psychiatrist at Sunnybrook’s Women’s Mood and Anxiety Clinic, and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Clinic share their insights.

What are some signs that my child is feeling anxious about returning to school?

Dr. Wang: Children of all ages show their anxiety in different ways. In younger children, they may report more physical signs of discomfort such as headaches, stomachaches, and even have changes to their sleep and appetite.  Some children may exhibit more frequent outbursts. Older children can typically share their feelings directly and may ask specific questions about returning back to school.

Keeping an eye out for these signs and talking to children openly about their concerns around COVID-19 is important.

If their fears or worries begin affecting their day-to-day lives and functioning, or if they are showing unusual fatigue or sleep change plus uncontrollable sadness or crying, reach out to a health care provider for help.

Tips for talking to your kids about mental health

How can I talk to my kids about their concerns around COVID-19 and going back to school?

Dr. Mansfield: Listening to a child’s concerns and validating their emotions is important in helping children express their feelings. Paraphrase back to your children what you have heard from them about their concerns. This is a supportive process, in that it will show them that you are listening and gives an opportunity for your children to make sure you are hearing them in the way they want to be heard.

Discuss their concerns and share information in an age-appropriate way. For example, young children can get overwhelmed with too many details. Listen to their questions and keep answers simple, and truthful to the level they can understand. Be honest and calm.

For children who are older, a deeper discussion may be needed. It’s helpful to have the latest information available to provide context. It may also be a good opportunity to help your youth access credible information (e.g. academic, health and government resources) and to talk about how to manage information overload during the pandemic.

What are some ways I can help my child prepare for back to school?

Dr. Wang: First, families can help by having regular communication with their child about the upcoming school year.  This fall is going to be a unique learning situation with many new procedures to learn and master.  Parents can help their children prepare for new safety measures such as physical distancing, mask wearing, proper hand hygiene, symptom awareness and potential screening measures.  By explaining the rationale for these procedures and practicing regularly before school begins, these measures will pose less of a barrier to learning throughout the day.

Since it has been six months since children have been in school, they may also be very excited and nervous about the return.  Parents can help them to process these emotions and talk through their concerns and their expectations.

Secondly, it would be important to help re-establish regular bedtimes and wake up times. A consistent schedule can help children cope with the changes ahead.  Proper nutrition and exercise are also key to helping reduce stress for a more healthy and balanced lifestyle.

Lastly, it is also helpful for parents to send a message to kids that they are capable and resilient.  Reassure children that there are still many things that are within their control and which can positively help with the reduction of risk.  Children like to feel that they can be a part of the solution.  Remind them that following the public health safety measures are their way of contributing to a safe reopening, both for themselves but also for their teachers and friends.

Back-to-school tips from our director of infection prevention and control

How can I help my child deal with separation anxiety on the first day of school?

Dr. Wang: Both parents and children can experience separation anxiety during the return to school.  The whole family can prepare by talking about the daily schedule and how things will change when school starts.

If parents are anxious, they can try to mitigate against that by working with the teacher or school in advance with a meeting to discuss any questions or concerns.

To help children feel less anxious about back-to-school, parents may approach their conversations by saying, “This is going to be a place where you’re going to go this year and we’re going to try to make it as safe as possible. This is where you will meet new friends, have fun and learn new things.” This reassurance from the parent to the child is key in reducing separation anxiety of the child, but it may take some time. Back-to-school time is always a period of adjustment for both parent and child.

How can I help my child prepare for wearing masks throughout the school day?

Dr. Mansfield: Try to make wearing a mask fun by involving children in the process of choosing the colour or designs on the mask, while still emphasizing the importance of wearing one and how masks can help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other viruses.

A step-by-step approach can help children, especially younger children, with wearing masks. They can begin wearing them at home to become more accustomed to the mask. Wearing a mask while doing something relaxing, such as, watching television or reading can help a child feel more comfortable in those situations. Eventually, you can try to move onto wearing a mask outdoors in public settings as a child becomes better able to tolerate wearing the mask for longer periods of time.

Learn more about mask anxiety

What are some strategies to help children and youth cope with their mental health?

Dr. Mansfield: There are a few exercises that parents and kids can do together that can help ease anxiety in the days leading up to school.

Worry Box: Create a “Worry Box” where kids of all ages can write down their worries or questions about returning to school and/or COVID-19 and place them in the box. You can also write it for them or they can draw a picture if they can’t write it on their own. This can help children externalize their worries and see that the thoughts or ideas they are having. Designate a specific day, time and place where the family can regularly go through the questions to help address their concerns. Sometimes the worry will already be resolved by the time you review it and if it’s still a challenge after your discussion, put it back in the box again to review next time. Organizing a specific time to address the worries will help your children focus on what they need to do during the day, knowing that they will have a chance to reflect on the worries and also have your full attention during the worry box time. This can also give parents a specific time to devote to answering questions without them popping up sporadically throughout the day.

List of Worries:  Make a list with two categories: What You Can Control and The Things You Can’t Control. List your worries in the appropriate category. In the column with items you cannot control, when you look at it a bit closer, you may find smaller aspects that you can control that can be placed in the other column.

For example, while you can’t control what is happening in the news, you can control how often you watch or read the news. Parents can talk with their children about putting effort and energy into the items that they can control (e.g. wearing masks or physical distancing) rather than focusing on the items that are out of their control (e.g. what’s happening in the news around COVID, certain rules at school).

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About the author

Jennifer Palisoc

Jennifer Palisoc is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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