Back to School, and it Feels so…Uncertain!

This school year students, parents and teachers are all dealing with a significant amount of transition and uncertainty about what the future holds. Mental health support during this time is crucial both at home and at school! Here are some tips to help this transition for our children, Adapted in part from the UNICEF USA Speaker Series, “Coping Through the Pandemic: Supporting Children’s Mental Health in Emergencies.”  and the National Council for Wellbeing: Mental Health First Aid.

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 and oftentimes not recognized as how helpful this can be for our children. 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.” You can do this on the ride home from their sports or while you have a moment together in the kitchen. Sometimes parents feel like they have to set the stage for the perfect “talking” environment, but it’s really not necessary. For younger children, engaging them 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. I love this acronym and use it all the time. Really listening to our children, means not thinking about what we are going to say in response. I hear from teen clients often that they really just want their parents to hear them out, not try to solve every single problem they have.

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. Their feelings are valid no matter what they are, and you can help them work through their emotions in a healthy way. It also helps to keep an open dialogue with your child’s teachers and school administrators, especially if you’re feeling anxious.

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 with teens sometimes it feels like emotions change every hour. No one is okay all of the time. It’s okay to have a bad day, a bad hour or moment. A conversation to remind them that a feeling is just a feeling and it will pass it important and often resonates with children and teens.  

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. Just a reminder that we are all different, and some of us may need more or less time to adjust to all of the transitions.

6. Encourage kids to 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. 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. Self- care can look like many things, from taking a nap, having some down time, to attending sports practices or spending some free time with friends. Remember that modeling point mentioned earlier, if you take care of yourself and talk about it with your family, your kids are more inclined to engage in self-care as well.

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