/ Mind/ How Parents and Kids Can Manage Back-to-School Anxiety
Counsellor Carrie Carson offers tips on making the transition back to the classroom easier for everyone.
As we enter the second school year of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s no surprise that stress is high among parents and students planning to return to in-person learning. The government and school boards have created guidelines to keep students safe but if there’s one thing the pandemic has underlined, it’s that no one knows the future. Registered professional counsellor and Inkblot provider Carrie Carson, partner and mediator at Phoenix Counseling and Meditation in Pointe-Claire, QC, offers four suggestions for dealing with uncertainty and making the start of the new school year easier on everyone.
No two children express anxiety about going back to school in exactly the same way. Carson advises that parents make note of behavioral changes in their children and inquire about them in a supportive, non-judgemental way. “Saying ‘There’s something I’m noticing. Is there something you need or want to talk about?’ is also a good approach if you’re not noticing anything at all,” says Carson with a laugh. Children may not have the same concerns as siblings or parents so it’s important for parents to understand their children’s individual worries. “The child may be nervous about school [...] because they don’t know what’s going to happen,” or about COVID protocols, or about reintegrating into a social situation after being remote. In each of these cases, the parent should acknowledge the issue even if they don’t think it’s a big deal. “We want to validate their experiences,” Carson says, “Denying their feelings is the one of the worst things a parent can do.”
Over and over, Carson stresses the importance of talking to kids, giving them facts and listening to their concerns with the ultimate goal of equipping kids with problem-solving tools to cope with discomfort. For elementary school-aged children, Carson recommends using developmentally appropriate language to explain what’s happening and reassuring them when they express fear. Books featuring characters dealing with stress and anxiety can help your child name what they’re feeling, which is the first step in working through an emotion.
The conversations that are helping your teen make sense of all the information they’re getting may be happening with peers so parents will want to ask questions like “What is it that you’re hearing?” and “How does that make you feel?” Of utmost importance is making sure your child understands the facts. Carson suggests first gathering information about what your child knows, then finding an appropriate way to provide the correct information. Regardless of your child’s age, if they’re not asking questions, “you don’t have to sit them down and say let’s talk about COVID,” says Carson. Having fun together before school starts is a great way to strengthen your bond so that when they’re ready to talk, they feel comfortable coming to you.
Prior to the first day, parents can contact school administration with questions about the school’s COVID plan. After the first day, parents can also find out from teachers what kind of stress management techniques will work best in the classroom and practice these with their kids. Strategies may include taking a deep breath, taking a break in a quiet corner, using a fidget toy, or asking to speak to a counselor or student support staff member. “The more information we have allows us to create a plan that allows us to step back and manage our anxiety,” Carson says. Parents of children with particular medical and mental health needs should solicit advice from their pediatrician or mental health professional so they can decide how best to support their children. When school does start, parents and teachers can communicate about differences in behavior at home and in the classroom. “By having everybody give feedback from different areas, we can put plans in place that meet the needs of the students.”
Parents’ worries are real and serious but Carson issues a reminder that the goal is for kids to love school. If they’re excited, “encourage them to be excited,” she says. “We don’t have to place doubt in their minds.” Carson advises parents to acknowledge that the situation is stressful “but when [stress] starts to impact our daily functioning we have to recognize that it has gone beyond the threshold.” If you find you’ve crossed that threshold, you can model self-care for your children through yoga, grounding techniques, or many other strategies. Carson is adamant that parents need to seek support for their own stress and anxiety. Parents may want to inquire about employee assistance programs at their places of employment, seek out a professional, or use apps to cultivate calm when emotions are overwhelming. “It seems like we know what’s going to happen, the reality is we don’t know. There’s been a lot of pivoting,” says Carson. “Take a deep breath and say [to your kids] listen, we’re accessing all the information we have available, we’re going to do the best we can, we’re gonna work together.”
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