Anxious about the upcoming school year? Here's how to ease your child's fears—and yours.

Written by: Layton Kirk

back to school anxiety

Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels

As the new school year approaches amid the Covid pandemic, we all find ourselves approaching it with a heightened sense of apprehension with a new normal of social interaction. The previous school year concluded with distance learning and parents temporarily thrust into educator roles and many are anxiously wondering what will happen this fall. It’s impossible to know what the future holds, and with no clear roadmap, parents who have been managing anxiety are now struggling.

The coronavirus has caused significant disruptions to everyone’s daily life, and children are particularly feeling all of these changes as the new “normal” continues to shift. These changes come with a mix of new emotions as the new school year quickly approaches. Some may be hopeful with the excitement of in-person while others may be fearful of returning to the social stressors. Regardless, it is our job as caregivers to support our children in exploring their many feelings while providing a sense of calm to ease anxiety. But how can we do that in a time like this?

[Related: 4 tips for managing your kids' coronavirus anxiety]

We often try to soothe our children’s anxieties by having “all” the answers, and you may feel exhausted by trying to force things to be certain. In this situation, it is important to let go of control as nobody is sure of what the future of school looks like. Become a safe space for your child by bringing awareness to the uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty that we are all experiencing. This will be tough but worth it, as figuring out how to manage anxiety and tolerate the uneasy feeling are essential skills for everyone these days.

Here are some tips on how to navigate conversations about the upcoming school year with your child.

Empathize and validate. Encourage your child to express any fear or anxiety while letting them know that what they are feeling is normal.

Use curiosity. Children may have fears revolving around bullying, e-learning, conflicts with friends, or being separated from you. Ask open questions and actively listen while talking through strategies to help your child improve problem-solving skills and feel empowered.

Emphasize what is predictable. With the uncertainties of the method of schooling these days, focus on what a child can expect—learning new things, interacting with a teacher, etc.

Continue practicing. Have the family wear a face mask at home in a variety of situations. This can be playing a board game, coloring, or watching a family movie. Doing this will help with not only the potential to return to classrooms but going to places like the grocery store.

Shift back into a routine. Routines promote feelings of safety and can give a child a sense of control. Create an expected school routine by following bedtimes, getting ready in the morning, etc.

[Related: Will my relationship survive this virus?]

Provide reassurance. Revisit the safety measures in place to help keep children and teachers safe. This can ease anxiety about their safety in public spaces.

Be honest. It’s okay not to have all the answers! We cannot solve all of our children’s problems, but sometimes they don’t need solutions—just to feel understood and supported. Admit that you wish you knew what the future of school looked like, but the reality is that you don’t. You are unable to make all the decisions now, but you will when you have the information you need. With honesty, you are sure not to make promises you can’t keep.

Acknowledge the uneasiness. It is difficult to sit in the uncomfortable feeling of anxiety as we tend to avoid or resist it. Begin to notice and gently observe what is happening in your body to increase your ability to handle it. By doing this with your children, it will model that it is okay to feel this way—even grownups do!

Focus on what you can control. It’s easy to get caught up in the unknown and “what ifs?” Notice when this is happening and gently shift to focusing on what is within your control to stay in the present moment.

Be kind to yourself. Being a parent in the best of times is already the hardest job in the world. It is impossible to avoid anxiety right now but doing the best you can is all you can do!

Layton Kirk, MA, LPC, NCC is a pediatric mental health therapist in Chicago. She treats children and adolescents struggling with a variety of emotional and behavioral issues at Individual and Family Connection located in Roscoe Village and River Forest.

Posted on July 15, 2020 at 12:50 PM