The new school year is starting kind of, well, where the last one left off. Maybe worse.
Nevertheless, amid the stunning emergence of the new, and more contagious, strain of COVID-19 (Delta) lurks an unrelenting optimism of life returning to normal. Though Dr. Anthony Fauci now warns that likely won’t happen until Spring 2022.
Here we go again.
Perhaps most salient for youth and their parents is a veneer of uncertainty. And where uncertainty goes, anxiety often follows.
A recent New York Times story, “Doubts, Anger and Anxiety: What It’s Like to Go to School Now,” frames the issues well (Goldstein and Mzezewa). It focuses largely on the great masking debate and the political divide gripping America and on the fact that this is the third academic year disrupted by COVID-19.
Parents who are able to manage their own anxiousness will be better able to model effective coping strategies for their children and will generally be better positioned to offer support.
Lifespan offers “Five Tips” for parents to ease their child’s worries while ensuring their own peace of mind.
1. Prepare early for a drastic schedule change.
Summer is the time for leisure, relaxed schedules, and sleeping in. Typically, the start of the school year signifies a more rigid agenda, between school itself, homework, and clubs or sports. To make this transition a little less difficult, start easing into a more structured schedule one to two weeks before the first day of school. Enforce a regular bedtime, select clothes and meals the night before and have breakfast together as a family.
2. Talk it out.
Talking to your child is always helpful in gauging how your son or daughter is feeling. When they express anxieties about going back to school, it’s best to acknowledge that their fears are valid. Instead of offering a blanket statement like “everything will be fine,” assure them that every one of their classmates feels the same way that they do. Remind them of how nervous they were for the first day of school the year before, but after just a few days, they loved their classroom, teacher, and new friends. Tell them you also got nervous for your first day of school or a job.
3. Stay calm.
It’s possible that your child’s nerves mirror your own anxieties about the upcoming rigors of fall. Your workload increases, you must find time to help with homework and carpooling, and you’re worried your child won’t like their teacher or worse, that they’ll be bullied. It’s important to remain calm and collected. Your child is looking to you for reassurance and encouragement, so try to keep your own anxieties in check.
4. Get together with friends.
Arranging a play date between your child and a familiar face from school before the first day can improve a child’s emotional and academic adjustment. Remembering that they’re not alone will ease their worries and relax their minds. Plus, you can chat with a fellow parent about how their family is handling the transition.
5. Know the signs of a more serious problem.
While many children experience nerves in the coming weeks before school, parents should also be aware of warning signs that may indicate prolonged anxiety. Some of these signs include changes in eating habits, problems sleeping, excessive clinginess, increased irritability, social isolation, tantrums, or headaches. If any of these behaviors persist longer than two weeks, consider consulting a professional. Many children can work through back-to-school anxiety individually, but when it interferes with daily living, it’s time to seek help.
And what about the kids? Here is an additional set of tips (Caron, 2021).
- Recognize and validate what your child is feeling.
- Introduce your kids to mindfulness.
- Establish a new routine.
- Communicate with your child’s teacher.
- Don’t talk about school too often or too early.
Given their developmental prerogatives, teenagers may fare worse than their younger siblings. In her article “How to Help Your Adolescent Think About the Last Year,” Julie Warner says, “Virtually everyone has waded through hardships this past year — job losses, relationship struggles, chronic stress and, in the worst of all cases, the loss of loved ones to Covid-19. And parents with school-age children have battled the demands of combining their usual work and family responsibilities with at least some degree of home-schooling.
“But mothers and fathers of middle schoolers — the parenting cohort long known to researchers as the most angst-ridden and unhappy — are connecting now in a specific sort of common misery: the pressing fear that their children, at a vital inflection point in their academic and social lives, have tripped over some key developmental milestones and may never quite find their footing again” (Warner, 2021).
She also warns against referring to “a lost year” and notes that social media screen time with friends can actually be good for kids’ mental health.
Are there long-term effects of the pandemic on young people? Many experts fear a continuation of mental health struggles, especially anxiety and depression, beyond COVID. For its part, Cedars-Sinai proffers a different perspective, saying, “The pandemic has created space in many people’s lives to slow down, spend time with family, refocus on what’s important, and connect with one another in new ways.”
Dr. Itai Danovitch, M.D., Chair of Cedars-Sinai Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences, notes, “‘The other side of this coin is that events like this can be associated with post-traumatic growth … People develop resilience. They learn how to deal with mental health challenges, and they find resources, internal and external, that they didn’t know existed.’”
Until then, it’s simply déjà vu all over again.
Stephen Gray Wallace, M.S. Ed., is a doctoral candidate in educational leadership and innovation at St. Thomas University in Miami, Florida. He is also an associate research professor and president and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE). Stephen has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor. He is a member of the professional development faculties at the American Academy of Family Physicians and American Camp Association and a parenting expert at kidsinthehouse.com, NBC News Learn, and WebMD. He is also an expert partner at RANE (Risk Assistance Network & Exchange) and was national chairman and chief executive officer at SADD for 16 years. Stephen is an award-winning writer and author of the books Reality Gap and IMPACT. Additional information about Stephen’s work can be found at StephenGrayWallace.com.
Caron, C. (2021). 5 tips for taming back-to-school anxiety. The New York Times. May 7, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/07/well/family/back-to-school-camp-covid.html (6 Sept. 2021).
Cedars-Sinai. (2020). Long-term impacts of COVID-19: Your mental health. November 24, 2020. https://www.cedars-sinai.org/newsroom/long-term-impacts-of-covid-19-your-mental-health/ (6 Sept. 2021).
Goldstein, D. and T. Mzezewa. (2021). Doubts, anger and anxiety: What it’s like to go to school now. The New York Times. August 15, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/15/us/covid-school-reopening-anxiety.html (6 Sept. 2021).
Lifespan. (2017). Five tips to manage back-to-school anxiety (parents’ that is!). August 2, 2017. https://www.lifespan.org/lifespan-living/five-tips-manage-back-school-anxiety-parents (6 Sept. 2021).
Warner, J. (2021). How to help your adolescent think about the last year. The New York Times. April 11, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/11/health/pandemic-middle-school-mental-health.html (6 Sept. 2021).