Most of us can remember that “back to school” feeling. For some children, it’s a time full of excitement about seeing friends after the summer vacation, but for others, it can cause feelings of stress as they leave the comfort of their family and home. If your child is returning to school this September, their anxiety may be particularly heightened as they face new realities in a COVID-19 world.
Here are five tips to support your kids’ mental health — and your own — this fall:
1. Practice open and honest communication
Speak openly with your children about what they are anxious about and reassure them that their feelings of anxiety and stress are normal. It’s important to be honest about some of the changes they may experience at school this year. Children may be expected to wear face masks and to physically distance themselves from friends. Reassure your children that the safety measures schools put in place are intended to keep teachers, students and families healthy.
It can also be helpful to remind them of the positives that returning to school brings. Children will be able to see their friends and teachers in a place that they haven’t been able to enjoy in months. As a parent or caregiver, you can feel good about your children having more structured days that include classroom time, lunchtime at school, homework and family time — a routine that may help restore a sense of normalcy during these times of uncertainty.
Foster openness by encouraging an open dialogue with your child — ask them about their day when their classes are done, and watch for hesitancy or stress when they describe their experiences.
2. Watch for signs of mental distress
When children are anxious, it’s important to acknowledge and validate their anxiety. Create space for your children to open up about their feelings about returning to school and keep an eye out for signs of stress. Signs of mental distress in children may include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Poor sleep or eating patterns
- Worry or negative thoughts
- Complaints of nausea or stomach aches
For children and adults alike, it is normal for emotions to change from day to day, especially during transition periods. Pay attention to the frequency of the stress behaviours your child is showing. Consistent stress behaviours may signify a greater issue,6 so be sure to speak with your primary care provider or start a consult on Akira by TELUS Health if you are concerned about how your child is coping.
Creative activities such as playing and drawing can also help children to express themselves and communicate any negative feelings they may be having.
3. Keep your child informed and prepared
Keep children informed of the changes they can expect, so you can work to normalize this unusual return to school period. Stay up to date with school policies and let your children know about changes to classroom size, desk space, lunch or recess activities and extracurricular activities. It may also be helpful to mention the possibility of future school closures, so your child is not jarred if their school closes down later in the year.
Remember that most studies conclude that while children may carry the novel coronavirus, they are less at risk than others of experiencing severe symptoms. Discussing this can be helpful in reassuring children who are nervous about contracting COVID-19. It can also be helpful to emphasize to your child that it is important to follow the school’s safety measures, as they help protect more vulnerable members of our community, such as their grandparents.
Watch this short video in family and learn how to safely wear and take off a face mask.
4. Look after your own mental health
Children take emotional cues from the adults in their lives, namely their parents or caregivers, so it’s important to prioritize your mental health. Parenting during COVID-19 is a stressful and anxiety-inducing experience. Ensure that you are taking care of your own wellbeing and this will translate to the mental wellbeing of your child through positive parent-child interactions.
By modelling calmness and confidence, you will help influence your children’s emotional state.
5. Be mindful of bullying and stigmatization
We’ve seen incidents of stigmatization and racism when it comes to COVID-19 in our country. Unfortunately, these stigmas can be passed on to children. Explaining to your child that the virus has nothing to do with a person’s appearance, what language they speak, or where they are from, reinforces the importance of treating all people equally: with kindness and respect. Remind your children to tell an adult if they experience or see someone else experience bullying at school or online.
Whether they live at home or away, your children 26 years old and under have access to on-demand, secure medical consults with Akira by TELUS Health.
- Unicef: Supporting your child’s mental health as they return to school during COVID-19.
- Montreal Children’s Hospital: How to support children’s mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- National Association of School Psychologists: Helping children cope with changes resulting from COVID-19
- Anxiety Canada: Anxiety in Children.
- Canadian Pediatric Services: Update on COVID-19 epidemiology and impact on medical care in children: April 2020
- Anxiety Canada: Talking to kids about COVID-19