Back-to-school anxiety: how to cope
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues into a new school year, there are many challenges that families are facing, including the isolation and anxiety of learning at home. A Baylor College of Medicine expert provides guidance for parents whose children may be struggling as they head “back to school.”
“Isolation can result in higher levels of anxiety or depression, as kids aren’t able to engage with people they care about or in activities they value and enjoy,” said Dr. Eric Storch, professor and vice chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and vice chair of psychology in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor.
Lack of social interaction may diminish children’s social skills. They can forget how to interact with others effectively, which can be a challenge once they return to traditional school. Storch suggests children continue practicing social interactions with peers through video chat or getting involved in online activities and computer games with others. Parents and children can also role play social situations to practice social skills, such as introducing oneself.
Staying connected through technology is one way to relieve the distress children experience during at-home learning. Spending time outdoors, exercising and playing sports throughout the school day also can help with feelings of anxiety surrounding isolation. To relieve stress, parents can engage in meaningful activities with their children, such as kicking a soccer ball, playing catch, riding bikes or engaging in a collaborative activity, like a craft or puzzle.
Some children may need additional assistance to cope with anxiety. Coping with COVID, a free, statewide program developed by mental health experts at Baylor, teaches parents how to support their children who are struggling with heightened levels of anxiety or distress due to the pandemic. Parents receive coaching from therapists on how to support their child and learn how they can implement psychological adjustment skills.
Children who have pre-existing mental health or behavioral issues are at a heightened risk for feeling distress during this time, Storch said. If your child has struggled with behavioral health problems in the past, engage or reengage them in treatment with a mental health provider. Parents should also reflect calmness in the household to alleviate stress in children.
“Limit exposure to the news and social media. Limit how much kids play video games. Have a structure to the school day,” said Storch. “Use this as an opportunity to try to build a skill set, or engage in activities that have previously gone neglected.”
One of the best ways to confront anxiety is to face unrealistic fears; for example, a child insisting on rigorously washing everything before entering the house, even though the CDC indicates that this is unnecessary. Have your child face that fear by bringing things home without sanitizing them, or limit hand hygiene to CDC-based recommendations. Parents can walk their children through these steps, as well as help them see the logic behind the situation.
“We want to keep behaviors linked to anxiety consistent with what recommended guidelines are, as opposed to engaging in excess,” Storch said.
Parents and guardians will feel increased levels of distress while trying to navigate their children’s routines, whether they are in the classroom or remotely learning. Storch outlines steps to put parents at ease with their children’s school schedule.
Introduce an element of certainty
Figure out how to manage the school schedule. Ask yourself, “What will childcare look like? What will the balance between work and education look like?” Try to develop a sense of routine.
Make solutions for different scenarios
Children might be back in the classroom later in the school year, but nothing is certain. If parents only plan for the scenario where their child is going back to school, they aren’t prepared for the contingency of if they don’t go back to school.
Take care of oneself
Parents are programmed to put their children before themselves, which poses challenges. If parents become burned out, it prevents them from taking care of their children effectively.
“Parents should give themselves a break. These are unprecedented times, and there is no perfect answer. Nobody needs to be perfect or completely spot-on in their approach,” Storch said.