The Back-to-School Season and COVID-19: Addressing Anxiety in Children and Youth
by Kim Nelson, LCSW, Chief Program Officer, Wheeler
This article appeared in the August 19, 2020 issue of Northend Agent's.
Read a related Bristol Press story with Kim's perspectives. Click here.
As families everywhere prepare for the return to school amid the COVID-19 crisis, there are many issues to consider and address, including back-to-school anxiety on the part of children, adolescents, or teens. In this new climate, children and youth are concerned for their own safety. They have fears about the bus ride to school. They are worried about the health of their parents, their teachers, and their friends. They are concerned about the impact of masks on their day-to-day interactions. They wonder how long this crisis will last, what the “new normal” will look like, and whether the “old normal” will ever return.
The situations that children fear depend largely on their age, and may vary, according to their unique situations. For example, some children are experiencing the COVID-19 crisis from the safety of stable, two-parent homes, where one or both parents are still working and with minimum impact, or loss of loved ones to this illness. Other children, however, who were vulnerable before this pandemic, might be affected exponentially more, suffering an even greater sense of food and economic instability, and now, the loss of family members to this disease. It is important to understand your child’s individual circumstances to understand how best to help mitigate their concerns.
As a parent or caregiver, addressing your child’s fears and anxieties during this time might seem to be overwhelming, but there are things you can do.
Recognize the Signs. No one knows your child better than you. Stay attuned to changes in your child or teen’s behavior. Look for deviations, including shifts in sleep patterns, restlessness, and kids talking a lot about pandemic. Stay alert to changes in appetite, unusual demonstrations of separation anxiety, or emotional sensitivity. Your child or teen also may show signs of being distracted, unfocused, or disengaged in learning. Their participation in family activities may have decreased. They may be disinterested in what is normally an exciting process of preparing for the return to school. Some children or youth may simply act out in surprising ways.
Additionally, in households with multiple children, it is important to remember that children and youth will not respond uniformly to this crisis, depending on their age, school situation, and personality. For example, there could be a child with two additional siblings at home with different school attendance and learning requirements because they attend schools in different areas of town. Some children may go to school in-person on a full-time basis, while their sibling may be doing hybrid learning or is fully remote.
Be Supportive and Nurturing. Make a concerted effort to listen and to be available to your child or children. Ask questions to find out how they are feeling, and gently point out that you have observed differences in their behavior. For example, you might pose a question such as, “You don’t seem like yourself, is there something you want to talk about?” Be sensitive and supportive following their response, and acknowledge their feelings. Children and youth at different ages and stages have different concerns and senses of loss.
Provide Safe Structure and Predictability. All children and youth need predictability in their daily routines. They also need to have their basic need met. Assure safety, routine, and, if you are feeling overwhelmed, consider engaging external help from your pediatrician, a mental health professional, or support line. Community resources are provided below.
Practice the Scenarios. This is really important because it helps children to formulate what will happen ahead of time. Practice with your child what the new school year, routine, and requirements will like. Talk through the various scenarios, including the impact of masks on interaction, learning, comfort, and even how to approach snack time or lunch. Be sure to put earlier bedtime routines into place now, so that kids are rested when school starts.
Additionally, revisit the remote learning spaces that your children have been using since the beginning of the pandemic. Consider what you can do make that environment more comfortable, especially if your child is involved in hybrid learning, or if schools make a complete return to learning at home. The most important thing is to help kids anticipate and prepare for what might happen, but also not to get stuck on the idea that “This is the way it is.” Be flexible and encourage your child to be flexible, as well, as the “new normal” is evolving constantly and will continue to change.
Take Care of Yourself. As you prepare for the school year, remember that your children are resilient. In many respects, they have the capacity to adjust better than adults. Amid this new period of preparation, make sure you are taking care of yourself, emotionally, spiritually, and physically, so that you can continue to support your family through this crisis and beyond.
If you need behavioral health support for your child, yourself, or other members of your family, Wheeler offers a full array of mental health services that address a range of issues, from anxiety and depression, to anger management, trauma, grief, and more. Call Wheeler’s Navigation Center at 888.793.3500 to set up an appointment. In-person and telehealth visits are available. Information about our services can be found at www.WheelerClinic.org.
If your child or youth is in crisis, dial 2-1-1 and Press “1” to access statewide Mobile Crisis Intervention Services, which serve children between the ages of 3 and 17, or 18, if still enrolled in school.
If you need help managing the stress and increased needs resulting from caring for your family during the COVID-19 crisis, call Connecticut’s “Talk It Out” hotline, an initiative of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families. The hotline provides support from a network of trained professionals, including Wheeler, who will listen and speak with people about their concerns and, if additional help is needed, make referrals to responsive programs, including Mobile Crisis Intervention Services. Call the hotline at 1-833-258-5011 or visit www.talkitoutct.com.