Easing anxiety as kids head back to school during pandemic

Reassure kids about potential changes; share info that's appropriate for them

From the back, you see a mom holding the hand of her daughter, who's wearing a backpack and heading back to school

Some kids get anxious about the start of a normal school year.

Separation anxiety, for example, may affect younger kids. The transition to middle school or high school may worry adolescents.

But what about when the new school year comes during a pandemic that already has snatched away the end of the last school year, along with many normal summer activities? How can parents help kids prepare in a time when they feel uncertain, too?

Sanford Health psychologist Sarah Konrady, Ph.D., offers suggestions to help ease the minds of schoolchildren — and their parents.

How will school change?

When kids go back to school, they may find some new procedures in place. If they feel apprehensive about changes, or uncertain about the status of school or extracurricular activities, Dr. Konrady said that parents can explain they understand it’s frustrating to not know exactly what’s happening.

They can reassure kids, though, that “all the adults are making decisions to keep kids healthy,” she said. “And whatever decisions are made, all your friends are going to be in the same situation.”

Rules may be added to encourage frequent hand-washing or use of sanitizer, or to apply measures of social distancing. But Dr. Konrady said kids tend to accept rules as part of the routine and should adapt pretty easily to new school expectations.

What if distance learning returns?

It’s safe to say switching to distance learning suddenly during a school year was a challenge for all involved: students, teachers, parents and school administrators.

And while many schools are trying to return to classrooms this fall, new coronavirus cases among staff or students could cause a building to shut down again for a period of time.

But if children (and parents, too) are anxious about that possibility, Dr. Konrady said it can help to reassure them that schools have been able to use the summer break to make plans for a smooth transition, if it’s needed. Even in the midst of a sudden shutdown, schools worked to try to ensure families had resources they needed: electronic learning devices, internet access and lunches. So now, schools “have some more knowledge and will be more prepared,” she said.

A “we’re all in this together” mentality can help, too. Assure kids that every child faces the same situation, and teachers will work with all of the children to help them keep learning.

What about kids who can’t go back?

Some children may not be able to return to a traditional school setting if contracting COVID-19 is a possibility. If they, or people in their immediate family, are immunocompromised, it could be dangerous for them to mingle with children who could have the virus with no symptoms.

And while they can continue academically with distance learning, they may miss the social aspect of school, if the rest of their friends have returned.

“That’s a tough situation, and kids are physical beings,” Dr. Konrady said. “They like to run and play together.”

Being able to schedule teleconferences with the whole class, and not just one-on-one meetings with a teacher, could help kids feel more included from home, Dr. Konrady suggested.

Related: 5 ways to fight depression

She also recommends maintaining a schedule at home similar to the school schedule, sleeping and waking and eating lunch at about the same times.

And if a family knows of another family who must socially distance, too, if they feel comfortable, they could socially distance together. Kids could still play and feel a connection, even if they’re not exactly the same age.

Ask, ‘What are your questions?’

One key component of keeping a child’s coronavirus anxiety in check anytime is to share only what kids need to know, especially younger children, Dr. Konrady said.

“Their level of anxiety usually reflects the adults in their life, their ability to give an appropriate amount of information — just enough to educate, yet not do so out of unnecessary fear,” Dr. Konrady said.

Parents are likely having a lot of conversations about the pandemic and precautions that kids can overhear. But try to be aware when kids are nearby, and also aware of what they’re seeing on TV, Dr. Konrady suggests.

“Kids are wanting to know, why am I not going to the pool? Why am I not going to baseball?” she said. So have conversations with children focused on public health and safety, leaving out adult anxieties and debatable topics.

“Let’s give kids the information that we know in the simplest terms we can that is important for them to understand, like washing your hands. Just the basics,” Dr. Konrady said.

She suggests letting kids guide the conversation, asking them what questions they have to avoid sharing more than they want. “If the kiddos are not wondering if they’re going to be in school the entire year, then just talk about the first day or the first week,” Dr. Konrady said.

Teenagers, Dr. Konrady said, are a different story. “You can have real conversations with them,” she said. And it’s preferable if they get information from their parents rather than online, from “the school of YouTube.”

How do you help a kid scared of catching COVID-19?

Children prone to anxiety might be especially worried about contracting COVID-19 at school or anywhere. So for them, Dr. Konrady said, parents can add more science and data to the conversation.

Discussing symptoms and the effects of the disease on older people vs. kids their age can help them understand that they’re at lower risk.

“If they’re anxious about something, they may write a story in their head about what could happen,” she said. “And without the facts to counteract that story, they may create something that they believe is quite possible — and not only possible, but probable.”

Going through a worst-case scenario with them can help. Remind them of a time when they were ill with a fever. Go over steps you used to treat it: medicine, rest, drinking water, eating soup.

“Your body might feel kind of tired and sore for a few days, and then you get better. And something like that could happen if you had this virus,” Dr. Konrady suggests telling a child.

“Having the knowledge is reassuring,” she added, if kids trust that their parents will tell them the truth.

She cautioned that brushing off a child’s concern with, “Don’t worry about it; you’ll be fine,” gives them too much room to create their own, much scarier story about what could happen to them.

Keep in touch with school

This fall, Dr. Konrady encourages parents to keep in touch with the teacher or school, especially if they have observations or suggestions that could serve as valuable feedback.

“As a parent of a child in the school district, you have a voice,” she said.

Of course, it’s good to keep in mind that the school district is doing its best, in unusual circumstances, to educate your children. So keeping your comments productive and not critical will be most helpful.

And reach out if you think of something that could help your child be less anxious, Dr. Konrady suggests. The transition to middle school, for example, can intimidate many kids. While summer group activities to introduce them to a new school might not be in the plans this year, you still could ask for an individual tour.

“To have a little bit of preparation sometimes is helpful for kids, just to calm them down and help give them some structure and normalcy,” Dr. Konrady said.

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Posted In Back to School, Behavioral Health, Children's, Coronavirus, Frequently Asked Questions

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