Starting a new school year is always stressful for students and parents. This year, everything will feel different, with young children and adolescents facing a unique set of challenges and stressors. Instead of adjusting to a new school or classroom, students returning to in-person classes will need to adjust to new safety precautions, routines, and ways of socializing with classmates and teachers.
While the current situation can be anxiety-provoking for both parents and children, children who thrive on routine and those with pre-existing mental health conditions are the most vulnerable. Here’s how to help your child cope with uncertainty and back-to-school anxiety during COVID-19.
Validate your child’s feelings.
It’s normal to feel anxiety when returning to school or daycare. Your child might experience an anticipatory period of anxiety before school starts, or they might experience persistent anxiety symptoms, such as panic attacks, extreme fear, and stomachaches.
As a parent, it’s essential to stay calm and positive. If your child is telling you they’re worried or having negative thoughts, validating their feelings and allowing them to express themselves. To comfort an anxious child and validate their feelings, be sure to:
- Stop and give your child your undivided attention
- Avoid judging or offering an opinion
- Offer support and help
- Replace “but” with “and”
- Acknowledge your mistakes and keep trying
Help your child reconnect with friends.
If your children are struggling with social anxiety from spending months apart from their friends, helping them reconnect before or after the school year starts is an effective way to ease their anxiety. Be sure to include proper social distancing and facial coverings and practice safety measures during your child’s get-together.
In elementary school, once children know their teacher, they can reach out to friends to find out if they have the same teacher. Meanwhile, in middle and high school, adolescents might find out who shares the same classes.
For many young kids and adolescents who participated in an online school, being separated from family members after months of togetherness, can be anxiety-inducing. For some young children, this may trigger separation anxiety, in addition to the anxiety that they’re already feeling about returning to school.
For children who feel anxious about being apart, try gradually practicing separation to alleviate separation anxiety when your child returns to school. For example, let your toddler play in their room alone while your spouse prepares dinner, or let your child stay with another family member while you’re running errands. Starting small can help you build tolerance for more independence while alleviating your child’s fear of separation.
When should you seek help?
In most cases, toddlers and children struggling with separation anxiety need time and support to adjust. But if your child is throwing tantrums at dropoff for more than 2–3 weeks, tries to avoid going to school, or their academic performance is suffering, then seeking professional help can make a significant difference in their mental health.
You know your child’s temperament better than anyone else, so it’s essential to pay attention to changes in their behavior. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), signs you should seek help for your child’s anxiety include:
- Poor academic performance
- Consistent school refusal
- Excessive fear and worry about returning to school
- Withdrawal from family and friends
- Significant changes in eating and/or sleeping habits
- Repetitive, self-destructive behaviors, such as skin picking or hair pulling
When anxious children do not outgrow their fears and worries, or when their anxiety symptoms interfere with their school, home, or play activities, they may be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, examples of different types of anxiety disorders include:
- Social phobia
- Specific phobias (i.e., phobia of loud noises)
- Separation anxiety disorder
- Panic disorder
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
Fortunately, anxiety disorders are highly treatable. The first step to anxiety disorder treatment is to talk to a health care provider, such as your child’s pediatrician, or a mental health specialist, about getting a mental health evaluation. Other conditions, such as trauma, may cause some signs and symptoms of childhood anxiety. Specific symptoms, such as difficulty concentrating, may sign attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Therapy for Childhood Anxiety
Working with a licensed therapist is the best way to help your child overcome their anxiety. Depending on your child’s anxiety symptoms and type of anxiety, your therapist may recommend a combination of psychotherapy and medication. Many therapists offer cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and family therapy to promote positive changes in your child’s behavior and thinking.
Treatment for separation anxiety typically involves working with a mental health professional to construct a treatment plan to help your child gain more independence. Therapists can also work with anxious parents to help parents overcome their own anxiety during the school season.
The experienced child and adolescent psychiatrists and psychologists at the Ross Center provide state-of-the-art treatment designed to engage children while helping them overcome anxiety. Specialized mental health treatment can help your child perform better in school, foster healthier relationships, and improve their mental health outcomes in the long run.