5 tips to support your child’s mental health as they return to school
Most of us can remember that “back to school” feeling at the end of August. For some children, returning to school means new clothing and the excitement of seeing their friends after the summer vacation. For other children, returning to school can cause feelings of anxiety and stress as they leave their parents, siblings and home comforts. This year, more than ever, your child’s anxiety may be heightened as they face returning to school in a COVID-19 landscape.
The following 5 tips are intended to support your child’s mental health (not to mention your own) as they return to school this fall.
- My child is scared to go back to school. How can I help them feel less nervous about the transition back to the classroom?
Speak openly with your children about what they are anxious about and reassure them that their feelings of anxiety and stress are normal. If your child is nervous about COVID-19 precautions, it’s important to be honest about some of the changes they may experience at school this year.[i] 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.
If your child is worried about returning to school, it can also be helpful to remind them of the positives of going back to school. Children will be able to see their friends and teachers and the distraction of a change in environment can help ease anxious feelings. Additionally, because there have been so many disruptions to children’s routines during COVID-19, having more structured days that include classroom time, lunchtime at school, homework and family time may help foster a sense of normalcy during these times of uncertainty.[ii]
- What behavioural issues should I look out for as my child returns to school?
Create space for your children to open up about their stress or anxiety about returning to school and keep an eye out for signs of stress. Signs of mental distress in children include: [iii]
- Difficulty concentrating
- Poor sleep or eating patterns
- Worry or negative thoughts
- Complaints of nausea or stomach aches
Validate and normalize your child’s anxiety – it has been a tough year. By modelling calmness and confidence, you can also influence their emotional state. If you are worried about your child, stay connected with their teachers, and if mental health issues are present or seem to be worsening, seek support through a school counsellor.
- The COVID-19 precautions my child’s school is recommending make my child feel nervous. How can I ease my child’s anxiety?
When children are anxious, it’s important to acknowledge the validity of their anxiety and encourage them to talk about their emotions.[iv] It’s also important to keep them informed of any changes they can expect, so you can work to normalize this different return to school. 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.
Additionally, most studies conclude that while children may carry the virus, they are less at risk of severe symptoms. The Canadian Pediatric Society states that less than 1% of hospitalizations in Canada were among those 19 and under and there are no associated deaths in this age group.[v] Emphasizing this statistic can be helpful in reassuring your child if they are nervous about contracting COVID-19. It can also be helpful to emphasize to your child that it is important to follow the recommended measures, as these measures take care of more vulnerable members of our community, such as their grandparents.
- How can I check in to see how my child is coping?
For parents and children alike, it is normal for emotions to change from day to day. If you’re concerned about how your child is coping, look for consistent changes in behavior that signify stress. Consistency of behaviour may signify greater issues than one bad mood after a day in the classroom.[vi]
Children also take emotional cues from the key adults in their lives such as parents or teachers. This means it’s important to check in with yourself. 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 affirmations and daily interactions.[vii]
If you’re concerned that your child is not opening up to you about their feelings, creative activities such as playing and drawing can also help children to express themselves and communicate any negative feelings they may be having.[viii]
- I am afraid of my child being bullied or bullying someone else when they return to school. What should I do?
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 that we treat all people equally: with kindness and respect.
Remind your children if they are being bullied at school to tell an adult. It’s important to remember that bullying can also happen online. Encourage an open dialogue with your child, watch for consistent behavioural changes and ask them about their day when their classes are done. Watch for hesitancy or stress when your child describes their day.[ix]
This year’s back to school preparation brings with it some extra precautions and anxieties shared by parents and children alike. It’s important to remember that school is an important part of the social and cognitive development of our children, and to re-emphasize this to ourselves and our children as we send them off to school this fall.
If you have questions regarding your child’s mental health or the upcoming return to school, reach out to your care team.
[ii] Montreal Children’s Hospital: How to support children’s mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.
[iv] National Association of School Psychologists: Helping children cope with changes resulting from COVID-19
[v] Canadian Pediatric Services: Update on COVID-19 epidemiology and impact on medical care in children: April 2020
[vi] Anxiety.org: Identifying signs of anxiety in children