Back to School. Back to Normal?

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We’re currently three months into the new school year and it is evident that this has been yet another different year for parents, caregivers, educators and of course, children. The COVID pandemic is still going strong and there are many new protocols within schools that have been put in place to attempt to keep children and families safe. Although they are there to ensure safety, these changes and protocols can be scary and overwhelming for all involved. Let’s talk about some of these stressors and what parents, caregivers and educators can do to help.

Families had to make an often difficult choice between virtual learning and in person learning. Both have many pros and cons and can bring up anxiety for children and teens. These worries might be larger and more intense than past years because of the complexities of the current global pandemic.

Here are some common worries for children and teens returning to school that we have been seeing in our therapy sessions:

  • The thought of sitting in a classroom can feel overwhelming after not being around many others for the past school year
  • Having to wear masks all day
  • The fear of COVID and/or getting sick
  • Worrying that they don’t know enough because of the gaps in learning that happened during the lockdown
  • Feeling worried about reconnecting to friends that they haven’t spoken to in a while due to being out of school and out of touch with others
  • Communication can be overwhelming in general as we have been isolated during the past school year
  • For those folks doing virtual learning, there’s worries about turning on their camera and gaining the confidence to participate virtually
  • Worries about how to feel connection with teachers and fellow students in the virtual learning space

What can parents and caregivers do to help?

It’s really important, perhaps now more than ever, that parents and caregivers are listening to their children and teens and validating their emotions/worries. Here is a quote that may put things into perspective:

“Validating involves putting yourself in your loved one’s shoes and conveying understanding of their experience as they are experiencing it. This involves imagining what the situation must be like for them. It is important to accept, allow, and validate emotions that are different from what you expected or that are hard for you to understand.” Steps of Emotion Coaching – Emotion-Focused Family Therapy (emotionfocusedfamilytherapy.org)

To create connections and an open environment for sharing both the positive and the negative, Parents and caregivers can ask questions to their children and teens like:

  • How is school going?
  • What’s going well?
  • What’s been hard for you?

You may also ask questions about what your child is worried about. It’s useful to explore worries in a curious way. Ask lots of questions and really try to understand what’s going on from your child or teens perspective. Here are some examples:

If you child or teen is having difficulty being around other people or connecting to others sometimes the best thing can be to help them gain exposure to being around others in a gentle way:

  • Take them out for a hot chocolate and help them practice ordering
  • Include them in grocery shopping and checking out with the cashier
  • Set up a time to go for a walk outside with another family or friend

Providing education about COVID and mask wearing can sometimes be enough for an anxious mind that is worried about getting sick.

  • Talk about what happens in your child or teen’s body when anxiety shows up- name and label those thoughts, emotions and body sensations
  • Teach your child or teen about ways to breath to slow down their body (box breathing, paced breathing), or ways to ground when in class (drop anchor, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 game)- lots of short videos are available on Youtube of these strategies and then practice them together

Equally important is for parents and caregivers to recognize and validate their own worries and stressors about this school year, as the effects from this pandemic impact everyone. Do your own wellness check:

  • Check in with your own stress level and notice if you’re feeling able to coach and support your child through their own worries.
  • Reach out to your own support systems and have open discussions about the things you’re struggling with and that your child or teen is struggling with. Likely other people in your social circle are experiencing similar things. Giving and receiving support is invaluable. It helps us feel less alone and gives us a place to share our feelings.

Our clinicians are skilled and are happy to help if anything you have read here sounds familiar to you. Remember that we have ALL been struggling over the past 18 months. Asking for help is the first step in making positive changes and recovering from the stress of this difficult time.

By Paige Sparrow MSW,RSW

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