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Dealing With Back-to-School Anxiety in the COVID-19 Era

In this crazy year of 2020, the back-to-school season is unlike any other in our lifetimes.The new school year has been a time of excitement for parents and kids, but in this year, anxiety and stress levels are off the charts.

Many parents have already wrestled with the decision of whether to send kids back to schoolor not, but that’s just the beginning. Both parents and children—from kindergarten age right up to high school—are facing an unprecedented list of worries. For one, kids may fear getting sick, or making a loved one sick. Then there’s the uncertainty about what the first weeks of classes, recesses and lunch hours will be like under new health measures. And all this comes after a long, often unstructured, break from school, sports and clubs, plus normal socializing. Clearly, we’re all in for a stressful few weeks and months. So, in this blog, I’ll suggest ways parents can help their kids cope with this anxiety—and their own, as well.

Preparing Kids For School- Minimizing the Anxiety

First, it’s important to understand that in uncertain times, everyone feels greater unease. Facing the unknown is always a difficult place for humans. So, feeling a heightened sense of anxiety is normal. But that doesn’t mean this anxiety has to rule your family’s life. There are many ways to combat this anxiety, including knowledge, honesty and developing a routine to help regain a sense of control.

When talking to kids about what the school year may bring, it’s important to be as honest and straightforward as you can. At this point, kids of all ages know that we’re in the midst of a global pandemic, so don’t play down the situation. Tell the truth, but without exaggerating. Answer questions honestly, but not in a way that will scare children.

Explain how kids can take some responsibility for their health by washing their hands, wearing their masks and playing outside. All of this gives them a feeling of control, which is comforting. In addition, since our best research at this time suggests that COVID-19 is usually fairly mild in children, assure them that if they do get sick, they’ll be OK. On a similar note, you should explain to kids that if some people get sick, school might need to close again. And reassure them that if that happens, it’s just a temporary measure—sort of like pressing the pause button on the school year—and it’s a way to keep your community safe and healthy.

Even before classes start, it’s also very important to get back into school-year structures and routines. That includes resuming normal sleep schedules and perhaps starting to wean kids off their screens. It’s also great if you can get kids together with their friends before school begins (outside, obviously), to get reacquainted, and start rebuilding normal social groups. All of these measures help both parents and kids manage the transition.

Symptoms of Anxiety

Once the school year begins, watch kids carefully for signs of excessive anxiety. But remember, kids often don’t process or understand anxiety the way adults do. Young kids can’t express this idea, and often older ones won’t admit or acknowledge difficult feelings. Instead, watch for tell-tale signs such as:

  • Increased defiance or irritability
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Loss of, or increase in appetite
  • Low energy or lack of concentration
  • Physical symptoms like stomach aches, nausea, unexplained body aches or dizziness

And I must stress again, this list of symptoms applies to kids of all ages. That includes teens, who are more likely to get angry and act out, rather than admit they are scared or nervous. And if physical symptoms appear on Sunday night or Monday mornings, that’s a dead giveaway. In this era of heightened anxiety for everyone, if children and teens show any of the listed traits, your default assumption should be that they are anxious—not deliberately behaving badly. They’re just trying to manage feelings that are too big for them.

So, what next? As well as reinforcing the things I mentioned above, try to create space for listening and talking. Use defiance and refusal as a chance to discuss what’s going on with your kids. Teens, for example, may be especially worried about social issues. (You can see some of my tips for talking to your teen in this previous blog.) >link to:

Managing Your Anxiety, Too

As well as managing anxiety in your children, it’s really important to take care of yourself. And of course, kids can pick up on—and are unsettled by—the anxiety of their parents and other authority figures (like teachers, who have their own reasons to be anxious). As well as talking through issues, another powerful technique for dealing with anxiety in both parents and kids is using simple relaxation and breathing exercises.

Children prone to anxiety tend to practice shallow (or thoracic) breathing, using the upper chest muscles. Shallow breaths can cause headaches, fatigue, cramps, muscle tension and hyperventilation. However, teaching a child to “belly breathe” and engage their diaphragm with deep breaths lowers their heart rate. Another common breath-control exercise that’s easy for kids to learn is known as “squared breathing.” Techniques such as these can be extremely effective during stressful situations. Kids are also surprisingly receptive to these techniques and learn them quite quickly.

View this video to teach kids squared breathing:

Living With Anxiety

Ultimately, there’s no way to totally escape the heightened anxiety that comes with these unprecedented times. The coming weeks and months are going to be stressful for both parents and kids. But that doesn’t mean you have to give in, and let anxiety rule your life, and guide your decision making. With these and other techniques, you can still have a satisfying and fulfilling family life during this era of uncertainty.

However, if you or your children can’t get the anxiety under control, please don’t hesitate to contact a mental health professional. Anxiety is among the most treatable of mental health challenges, and the success rate among those who get treatment is very high.

Thanks for reading and, as always, please feel free to reach out with questions about this or other mental health issues.

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