How to Cope with Back-to-School Stress
Many students and families are relieved to be returning to in-person classes, but your child may be anxious about the upcoming school year. Atlanta Parent spoke to Dr. Stephanie Walsh, the Medical Director of Child Wellness at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Strong4Life, about how you can help your child cope with back-to-school stress.
How can you talk to your kids about back-to-school anxiety?
Regardless of a child’s age, start by asking open-ended questions to find out what’s on their mind and actively listen. Remove any distractions, like your phone, give them your full attention, and be careful to avoid statements such as “Don’t worry about that!” or “It’s going to be fine.” Even though you mean well, these types of responses minimize your child’s feelings and may make them less likely to share their thoughts or feelings in the future. Instead, let your child know you understand by repeating back what you hear and letting them know it’s OK to feel however they’re feeling. Once you know how they are feeling, help them work through those emotions rather than avoiding them.
How can you help your child prepare for school if this is their first in-person experience?
If your child is going to be attending school for the first time in the fall, you can help ease their anxiety by using the summer to prepare them for what to expect. If possible, you may want to:
- Visit the school before the first day.
- Meet the teacher.
- Drive or walk the bus or drop-off route.
- Have playdates with other kids that will be at the school.
How can you help your kids deal with the anxiety about COVID-19 if they’re returning to in-person school?
It’s important to ask kids open-ended questions to get a sense of how they really feel, rather than making assumptions. Dismissing or minimizing their concerns doesn’t help them feel better. Instead, let them know it’s normal and OK to feel anxiety about in-person learning. Help your child learn to name, and work through, their feelings with healthy coping skills. If your child is feeling anxious about the unknown, help them focus on the facts and what we do know. If they are particularly overwhelmed thinking about the future and all the “what if” scenarios, try to shift their focus to what you know right now. Knowing what to expect can put their mind at ease.
How can you make the transition to back to school easier?
Create daily routines to help keep things predictable. Knowing what to expect can help create a sense of comfort and security. Although things can change from day to day, try to have some consistency with bed- and wake-times to help your child transition back to school more easily. Encourage your family to prioritize healthy habits, such as drinking water, eating balanced meals and snacks, being active, getting enough quality sleep and limiting screen time. Practicing healthy habits will help support your child’s mind and body as they transition back to school and can have a positive impact on their mood, focus and behavior.
How should you talk to your kids about COVID-19 safety precautions?
As much as possible:
- Stick to the facts, and tell your kids only what they need to know.
- Use language that is clear, simple and developmentally appropriate.
- Help them understand that regardless of changing guidelines related to masking, they can continue helping to keep themselves and others safe by washing their hands, keeping their distance and staying home if they are sick.
If you are more nervous about the return to in-person school than your child is, how can you keep them from picking up on your own anxiety?
As a parent, you are human and have your own feelings, too. It’s normal and understandable to feel worried about your child returning to school, but keep in mind that kids look to adults to see how they should behave or react. If you are showing signs of anxiety, your kids will think they should feel anxious, too. Try to share your calm, instead of your anxiety. Consider talking to friends, family and other caregivers about how you feel. If any confusion or uncertainty is causing anxiety, talk with the school to get your questions or concerns answered.
How can you teach your child to deal with their anxiety?
Here are some simple coping skills you can teach and practice with your child:
- Take deep breaths
- Close their eyes and count to 10 or backward from 100
- Imagine a happy place
- Go for a walk
- Tense and relax muscles
- Listen to music
- Write, journal, color or draw
Find more helpful family and parenting resources at strong4life.com.
This article was originally published in the July 2021 issue.