Feelings about going back to school will be more complicated than usual for most kids this fall. COVID-19 containment measures have kept many students out of the classroom over much of the past 18 months. Some children thrived with more family time and less academic pressure. Others suffered from social isolation and the disorienting loss of routine.
Below, some expert advice on how parents can support children's mental health — by staying connected to their kids, easing back-to-school anxiety and helping to smooth the transition to a successful new academic year.
1. Give children a safe space to share their feelings
Mirroring — reflecting back a child’s experience — is one of the most important parenting skills. If your child seems troubled, pick a quiet moment and say, "I’m noticing a different vibe lately. I feel like there’s more going on than you’re sharing." Engaging children in creative activities, like playing and drawing, can help them express any difficult feelings in a low-key, supportive environment.
2. Listen more, talk less
Children often take their emotional cues from the adults in their lives, so it's important to remain calm, listen to children's concerns, speak kindly and reassure them. Let your child lead the conversation. Think W.A.I.T. — Why am I talking? — before you speak.
3. Recognize anxiety is completely normal
Point out that everyone has a rough patch now and then. It's understandable, particularly during a pandemic. Anxiety is invisible; worry is a symptom. Learning to tolerate uncertainty is a developmental skill. Remind your kids that when they have a problem you are there to help them work toward a solution.
4. Don't hide your own stress
Model healthy stress management whenever possible. When you feel overwhelmed yourself, share that information with your kids. Say, "I'm not handling my stress well right now." Remind them that emotions change, and it's okay not to be okay all the time.
5. Give children time to adjust
After so much time at home seeing only immediate family members, young children returning to preschool or daycare may take longer to warm up to unfamiliar teachers and caregivers. Mask wearing keeps us safe but makes it harder to communicate feelings and provide reassurance. Work with your child's teachers to build new routines that help children make strong connections and successfully transition from home to school.
6. Encourage kids to be pace themselves
Students eager to be back in the classroom and see all their friends may find their new in-person school day more exhausting than they anticipated. Help them build in study breaks and downtime.
7. Address COVID-19 fears honestly
With pediatric COVID-19 cases on the rise and reports indicating more young people are struggling with long COVID-19, many kids are bound to have questions and concerns about going back to school during the pandemic. Find out what's bothering them and give direct, age-appropriate answers to their questions. If you don't know the answer, look it up together using trusted sources like the UNICEF and World Health Organization websites.
8. Vaccinate your children if they are 12 or older
COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. Being vaccinated gives your child peace of mind, knowing they are protected from COVID-19 and doing their part to stop the coronavirus from spreading in their community.
9. Emphasize self-care
It’s important to think about mental health as part of a continuum of total health. When a person's not feeling well, they need to go to the doctor. If you think your child might benefit from seeing a therapist, encourage them to give it a try, even just once.
As students in the United States begin to safely return to in-person classes, schools must be equipped to deal with the anxiety, stress and interrupted social development caused by COVID-19. Now more than ever, we need to ensure every child has access to mental health services through their school. Urge Congress to pass the Mental Health Services for Students Act.
Top photo: Carrying their UNICEF backpacks, children head for home after a day of school in Niamey, the capital of Niger. © UNICEF/UN0443416/Dejongh