Back To School 2021: Helping Kids Manage Stress and Uncertainty

Column by Amy Marschall, Psy.D.

It’s almost time for back to school in a pandemic…again! We thought last year’s uncertainty was stressful and difficult to manage, and this year we have many of the same concerns, plus variants. How can you continue to protect your children with so much ongoing uncertainty?

Research conducted over the last year has shown that children and teens are hit harder by pandemic stress compared to adults. Children do not have control over much in their lives, from where they live to what they will eat, and it is adaptive for them to believe that their parents can keep them safe. As we start a second school year with the pandemic, many kids are very aware that the adults in their lives might not have the power to protect them from certain things, and that can be terrifying.

How can I talk to my child about back-to-school?

Children might not have the same range of vocabulary as adults, but they understand and pick up on stress. If you are not telling your child about a stressor because you do not want to upset them, know that they are already aware that something is up, and they are possibly imagining something much worse than what is actually happening.

Regardless of the time of year, it is always good to have open communication with your children. As previously stated, children often have feelings that they lack the vocabulary to describe. Making space for them to ask questions and explore how they are feeling is important to their development.

Conversations about difficult topics are not typically one-and-done situations. Currently, we are dealing with real-time changes in safety recommendations, new variants, new information about existing variants, and other scary things. Regularly check in with your child, update them with information that is relevant and appropriate based on their age, and prompt them to bring questions to you. This will ensure that they have the space to bring things to you, and they will get the message that they can come to you at other times.

What if my child is very anxious about going back to school this year?

Feelings are not good or bad; they simply are. Anxiety is helpful sometimes – we get anxious when our brain thinks we might be unsafe. It makes sense to feel anxious when something new or uncertain is happening. The start of the school year automatically comes with uncertainties, and this is even more true in a pandemic.

You can validate your child’s anxiety while communicating to them that they can get through difficult times. William, the What-If Wonder on His First Day of School is a great book about overcoming anxiety for elementary school children. A Family Guide to COVID is a free ebook that addresses questions kids have about going to school in a pandemic, and Kolo’s Unique Return to School is a free children’s story about taking safety precautions at school.

More free children’s ebooks about COVID are available on the New York City Department of Education website.

What if my child does not want to wear a mask?

Adjusting to wearing masks was challenging. Any change is stressful, and this came during a time of misinformation and fear. Children have had to deal with changing expectations around when they are supposed to wear masks and when they can take them off, and many with underlying sensory issues have a hard time finding a mask that is comfortable for them.

If your child dislikes wearing a mask due to a sensory issue, let them try different fabrics until they find one that works for them. Children also find seat belts uncomfortable, and we enforce that boundary for their safety – asking them to adhere to a mask mandate is the same concept.

Instead of simply telling the child repeatedly that they have to wear a mask, talk with them, and address their concerns. Help them find a mask that is comfortable for them (and, if possible, with a pattern or design that they like!). Explain that masks are part of the dress code to keep everyone safe at school. I compare them to pants – you might not want to wear them, but it is part of the expectation if you are going to be around other people.

How do I know if my child is having a hard time?

Children do not always have the skills to say, “This is difficult for me.” They often communicate through behavior, and what looks like a tantrum is usually an indication that they have an unmet need.

Many behaviors communicate that a child is having a hard time, including:

  • Behavioral outbursts such as tantrums, outbursts, crying, or yelling
  • Difficulty falling asleep, or not wanting to sleep alone
  • Reports of physical illness (such as stomach ache or headache) that do not have a physical cause (Always check with your pediatrician to rule out a medical cause for these kinds of symptoms!)
  • Loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy
  • Fixation with scary news or events

If your child is having difficulty, it is okay to get support. Most pediatricians will keep a list of therapists who work with children whom they can refer you to, and the therapist can help your child communicate their feelings with words as well as cope with difficult emotions.

How can I teach my child appropriate coping skills?

Children learn the most by watching the adults who take care of them. The most effective way to teach your child how to manage their feelings appropriately is to model what appropriate coping skills look like.

For example, what are you teaching your child about anger when you get mad? Do you pretend the feeling is not there? It is okay to get angry – we all feel that way sometimes! Pretending the feeling is not there isn’t productive. On the other hand, do you yell or throw things? In that case, your child will learn that we act out when we have a big feeling.

Notice the similarities between your child’s behavior and your own, and teach your child what is appropriate by showing them.

It has been a challenging year and a half, and there does not seem to be an immediate end in sight. It is especially difficult to navigate back-to-school on top of a pandemic, and it is okay to need support and help during this time.

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