How To Help Your Child With Back-To-School Anxiety: COVID Edition

In a ‘normal’ summer, children are frolicking out by the creek, sending postcards from camp, or screaming with excitement at Valleyfair. Adults are planning vacations, getting together with family and friends, and enjoying play dates with their young children. As the summer comes to an end and the mosquitoes start to end their bloody battle with our enjoyment of the outdoors, we see the shelves at Target change their stock from outdoor patio furniture to notebooks, colorful binders, and too many types of writing utensils.

I remember that sensation as a young child, the feeling of the return to school and the anxiety of the unfamiliar – new teachers and a new set of expectations. Whether the change is from pre-K to kindergarten or middle school to high school – the feeling of change and transition can be daunting. A large part of the discomfort of the new school year is the change in routine. Children (and adults!) thrive on having a healthy routine, with detours sprinkled in. When children feel safe in their routine, they also feel safe to explore physically, intellectually, and emotionally.

The last few months have been anything but ‘normal routine.’ With the COVID pandemic closing schools last March, causing parents to work-from-home, and with unemployment on the rise – these last few months have been turbulent. Our summer has been similarly marred with uncertainty, and now, with the school year approaching, the plot thickens. Some schools are going 100 percent remote, others using a hybrid model, and a smaller percentage using 100 present in-person learning.

Whatever your schools’ current situation, your children have the worry of the ‘normal’ back-to-school jitters, with the added, and undoubtedly heavier burden, of COVID and the havoc that it has caused on the family home life. While some children will be able to verbally articulate their fears or preoccupations, many others express their anxiety with clinginess, temper tantrums, irritability, negativity, somatic complaints (e.g., headaches, stomach aches), regressive behavior (e.g., a return to baby talk or thumb-sucking), withdrawal, nightmares or trouble sleeping.

How can parents help a child struggling with back-to-school anxiety during the age of COVID? Here is a list of suggestions. Some might apply to you and your child, others may not. Use whatever helps your unique parenting/COVID situation.

Wear the Right Hat

Being an adult is complex, and to deal with that complexity, we wear different ‘hats.’ We have our ‘work hat,’ our ‘friend hat,’ our ‘parent hat,’ our ‘spouse hat,’ and others. Our hats help us differentiate between the many roles we play with others in our interpersonal relationships.

COVID has forced us to wear all our hats at once, and at times it feels like our hat collection is growing taller and taller! Where we used to have time to take off our parenting hat before donning our work hat during our commute to work, we now have a messy transition of clearing the breakfast table of Cheerios and pancakes and placing our laptops on a still sticky breakfast-table-turned-office-desk. On top of that, we will now need to help our children log-on to their schools’ Zoom sessions and set up quiet spaces for them to work. We may also have our spouse or partner working from home which adds another dimension to the already hectic day.

Our children are always watching us, listening to us, and learning from us. How parents deal with difficulty and mounting worries is going to have an effect on how children learn to deal with life’s challenges.

Not having time to change our hats also gives us an opportunity for integrating our different hats into one. Utilizing the skills we’ve learned at work to deal with multiple co-workers managing a project can also be used now at home. Our children will learn to overcome hurdles by utilizing their inherent gifts and abilities.

Children do a great job of picking up on parent’s anxieties and stress. Take some time, even a few minutes, to center yourself in the morning. Utilize mindfulness techniques such as yoga, meditation or prayer to visualize the day and how you would like it to go. It may not work out exactly as you hope, but it can give you the structure you need to move forward. A relaxed parent often means a relaxed child, so take care of yourself; go for a walk around the block, eat nutritionally dense meals, breathe with intention and take time to appreciate that this pandemic will not last forever, but the memories and feelings of how we dealt with it as a family unit will.

Understand How Children Express Themselves

Children haven’t had as much time on this earth to cultivate the words to express their emotions, which is often why children have tantrums. They feel exasperated when they can’t explain what they want/need!

As parents, one of our roles is to help children work through their emotions and find healthy avenues to express them. Ask your child open-ended questions regarding school and COVID (e.g., “I wonder how you feel about using Zoom for classes,” or “How do you feel about wearing a mask at school?”) as opposed to leading questions (e.g., “Are you feeling anxious about wearing a mask at school?”). Open-ended questions allow children to pause and think about how they actually feel, as opposed to leading questions that feed an answer to a child. When your child responds to you, practice active listening. Pay attention, make eye-contact, clarify when needed, and reflect. Many worries and anxieties can be quelled by feeling heard and seen.

Create an Evening Routine

Creating a consistent evening routine at home can be a welcome change of pace for all family members. Whether the children are coming home from school or walking downstairs from their newfound home-school, having a routine in the evening can be an environment of respite. Making dinner preparation a family affair, lacing up the sneakers and going for a family walk, or having a socially-distanced outside get-together with friends are things children and parents can look forward to, creating a separation between work-time and family-time.

Practice, Practice, Practice

It is helpful for children to be walked through their morning routine before the first day, regardless of the learning model. Practice wearing a mask, washing hands often and keeping socially distant as much as possible. Novel situations can be a culprit for anxiety. Working through these new situations before they arise can help subdue the worry. Ask your children often what their thoughts and feelings are about school and their safety. They may not always respond, but keeping an open channel of communication is key for children to feel they can speak to parents when the need arises

Nothing Lasts Forever
The back-to-school-anxiety will dissipate, regardless of the environment that schooling takes, once children get into their new school routines. The new normal will become just that, normal. COVID’s path is unpredictable, and amidst that, our children will see that their parents worked their hardest to create a pocket of warmth and stability, openness, and confidence. Your parental support, ongoing encouragement, and praise for demonstrating behavior that helps your child confront their fears and move through them is often all that is necessary for your child to adjust confidently to their new environment.

Remember to be consistent, calm, and optimistic. Most difficulties pass naturally with simple empathic support and understanding. However, if your child’s problems persist or escalate, you may wish to talk with your child’s teacher, the school principal, or the school psychologist/social worker. They can offer insight and guidance, and support your child as he or she overcomes their struggles. We are all in this together.

Avi-Natan Zakada, LGSW is the Lead Counselor of the JFS PEARLS Program