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Kids Health

Supporting Our Children’s Emotional Health As They Return to School Amidst COVID-19

August 19, 2020

by LYDIA ABRAMS, LCSW
School Counselor, Hillel Academy of Tampa and Therapist at ProTherapyPlus, LLC

Returning to school amidst COVID-19 can bring about various feelings for children and parents alike. COVID-19 is an “unprecedented” event; while some of us may have experienced or witnessed a pandemic before, no one has had prior experience with COVID-19. We are all still learning what works and what doesn’t work.  The good news is, that when it comes to managing our emotions, we already have tools available to us. It can be helpful to think about what has worked for you and your family in the past during emotionally challenging circumstances and to incorporate these strategies during these trying times.

Self Check-In 

Before we can support our children’s emotional health, it is important to check-in with ourselves to see how we, as parents, are being affected emotionally. It is in our children’s best interest to take care of ourselves so that we can be mindful of what our children’s needs are. In addition, it is helpful to remember that our children are watching and learning from what we are modeling for them. Questions you can ask yourself are:

  • How am I feeling about this pandemic? 
  • How has the pandemic changed my life?
  • How am I coping with it?
  • What meaningful revelations have been brought to light for me? 
  • What do I have control over? What don’t I have control over?
  • How am I taking care of myself?
  • What do I need that I am not getting to take care of myself?
  • Am I experiencing a traumatic response due to having experienced or witnessed others’ trauma related to COVID-19?

All feelings are okay – how we cope with them is key.  If you are having difficulty functioning emotionally, it is recommended that you reach out to someone (a friend, family member, spiritual leader or mental health professional) for support. 

There are many ways we can take care of ourselves. Here are some examples:

  • Acknowledge and have acceptance about your feelings.
  • Take at least 10-15 minutes each day to do something for yourself (for example, take a bubble bath, exercise, read a book/magazine)
  • Relaxation exercises (such as mediation, yoga, deep breathing, visualizations)
  • Spend time outdoors (e.g., go for a walk, pay attention to nature, release your thoughts)
  • Write in a journal
  • Connect with someone by phone call, video, or a physically-distanced walk

Addressing Your Child’s Emotional Health

Your children are most likely feeling a lot of the same emotions that you are! Each child is unique and some might be enjoying the additional time at home with increased use of electronics and less structured schedules. Each child is an individual who most likely is experiencing various feelings at different times.  

With school starting, new feelings may emerge. Many children have not spent much time outside of their home over the past 5 months. Attending school will be a return to in-person (or virtual) socialization/learning and, for the first time in a long while, many children will be spending most of their day inside the school building. This can bring about a lot of uncertainty and anxiety. Many kids might wonder if their school, which was once their “safe place”, is now safe in terms of protecting their health. 

Signs of Anxiety in Children 

Children may not always be able to express what they are feeling.  Here are some signs to look out for:

  • Clinginess, trouble separating from parents
  • Increased focus on physical symptoms, aches, and pains
  • Difficulty breathing/chest pains
  • Trouble sleeping, eating
  • Moodiness, irritability, meltdowns
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Fear of “not catching up” with school work
  • Repetitive behaviors that are not their norm
  • Social isolation

Some children may experience feelings of depression as a result of changes in their lives due  to COVID-19. It can sometimes be hard to distinguish between what is depression and what are the impacts of long-term social isolation due to quarantine. If you are unsure, it will be helpful to notice if any of the following symptoms continue after school has been in session for several weeks:

  • Unusual sadness, even when issues have been resolved
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Changes in weight and sleep patterns
  • Hard on self, feelings of worthlessness/helplessness
  • Isolating self from peers (even virtually) 
  • Attempts or thoughts of hurting self (this requires immediate intervention with the help of a mental health professional)

Common Coping Strategies

There are many ways we can help our children cope with feelings associated with COVID-19 and returning to school. The most important thing is to talk openly about it.  Here are some tips on talking with your child:

  • Acknowledge and embrace the discomfort about going back to school
  • Talk about what is hard about it
  • Validate their feelings (don’t try to “fix it”)
  • Normalize their feelings (“Many kids feel that way”)
  • Share your own feelings and how you cope with it 
  • Be honest at their developmental level
  • Remind them of what they have control over (such as following safety precautions)
  • Help them to identify positives and their strengths

Additional Coping Strategies

  • Have a daily routine, structure, set goals
  • Outside time
  • Practicing Gratitude; create a family “Gratefulness Jar”
  • Journal writing/drawing
  • Limit media exposure
  • Breathing, mindfulness, relaxation techniques, practice patience
  • Remind them that “this too shall pass”
  • Point out ways they have been positively impacted by this pandemic 
  • Remind them (and yourself!) that they are not alone: EVERYONE is being affected by the pandemic

Resilience

It is helpful to remember that our children are resilient.  As adults, we have had 20+ years of living life pre-COVID and it can be harder for us to adjust. Our children are younger and have less pre-COVID experiences on which to compare their current reality. Many children have adjusted very well to the sudden changes and are young enough to adapt to this “new normal”. Some children have learned new hobbies; gained independent skills while their parents are working from home; become more deeply bonded with family and neighborhood friends; and have adjusted well to the safety precautions. They have shown us that we can persevere during hard times. 

Preparing Your Child to Return to School

If your child’s school has not yet begun, here are some tips to help them prepare for the upcoming adjustment:

  • Re-acclimate them to a school-based schedule
  • Reintegrate their school sleep schedule
  • Provide meals similar to when back in school
  • Have them practice dressing and grooming in the morning
  • Slowly wean your child off electronics (a little more each day)
  • Include learning time in the day (summer assignments, reading, academic workbooks)
  • Practice wearing masks, washing hands, physical distancing
  • Demonstrate positivity about going back to school
  • Reinforce their coping strategies and remind them of their strengths

Returning to School

Here are some helpful tips for the start of school:

  • Be prepared for an adjustment period as your child transitions back to being in school after having been at home/quarantined since March
  • Be mindful that it might take your child awhile to acclimate to being back at school while managing various feelings
  • Many children will need to adjust to being active, social, and learning after spending many months at home without much social interaction/learning/physical activity
  • Some children might need time to adjust to the new safety precautions at school
  • Role model patience, understanding, coping strategies
  • If your child was working on any skills prior to COVID-19 (such as speech-language development, social skills, study skills, etc.), be prepared that they could re-emerge or regress
  • Use encouraging words: “We are taking it one day at a time”, “this too shall pass”, “it won’t always feel this way”

Partner with Your Child’s School

It will benefit your child to work in partnership with their school and teacher.

  • Inform their teacher if there have been any changes or losses
  • Let their teacher know if your child is having adjustment concerns or emotional responses
  • Let their teacher know of any successful coping strategies you have used, in the event your child needs reminding/coaching
  • Practice patience with your child’s teacher and school, and remember, they are also navigating changes associated with returning to school and teaching amidst COVID-19

Practice Kindness

We are all impacted and coping with COVID-19 in different ways.

  • Model kindness towards other students, parents, teachers, school staff, family members, community members, and to yourself
  • Reach out to others to request help and/or offer support
  • Use kind, non-judgmental, supportive words when communicating with others
  • Avoid and teach your child to avoid “COVID-shaming” if someone is out sick from school
  • Recognize that someone will most likely have COVID-19 at your child’s school and it will need to be addressed. Consider how you can respond in a calm, kind way in front of your child

Recognizing your and your child’s emotional needs, and partnering with your child’s school, will help you navigate returning to school in the time of COVID. 

Remember, you are not alone — don’t forget to reach out to your support system or a mental health professional, if needed. We are all stronger together, while keeping six feet apart!