September is here…and that means it’s back to school time! This year though, it is not quite what we all expected. This is the time of year when our kids are usually transitioning from summer camps and sunny vacations, to back to school shopping and what is in store for them in class. We have been in pandemic mode since March and the new school regulations for Ontario have just recently been released. If you’re planning to send your child to school or planning to continue distance learning from home, here is a brief guide about how to handle back-to-school anxiety as a family.
Talk to your kids about back to school anxiety
Talk to your kids about their general school worries. Remember that while you as parents have been trying to navigate the new normal, your kids have also been out of their school routines for several months. Plan ahead to help them face fears involving social connections, academics, online challenges, and any other things they have concerns about. Keep the conversation age-appropriate while answering any questions they have about the new school year. Feel free to use the “That is a great question and I’m not quite sure how to answer that right now” response for anything that you are unsure about. It is OK to not know the answers, and normalizing this as adults can help children feel more comfortable with things too. Encourage ongoing communication and let them know that if an answer does come available, you will be sure to fill them in/keep them in the loop!
Help them acclimatize to new COVID-19 protocols with you.
The COVID-19 protocols around social distancing and masks may cause some nervousness and confusion for your kids. Try to walk them through these protocols by going out in the community together. Practice these protocols as a family in public spaces. Go visit the school playground, the bus stop, or any other places you can model the expectations that will be placed on students if they attend on-site at school. Have social distance visits with other families. Kids need to feel supported by parents to change behaviour patterns. Work together as a family and model the behaviour for your kids. Teach them what to do in an interactive way… put your masks on together, have them teach you how to properly put on your mask, etc. It is OK to make it both fun, and also be a learning opportunity for them.
A way to engage your kids in the school process involves asking them to be the experts. After all, they are the ones that have to navigate the new school experience! Have conversations with them that centre around them teaching us, the parents, about how the schools are running this year and how things have changed or stayed the same compared to previous years. Have them fill you in on how the teachers are tweaking things and how they feel about the new processes. They may have some concerns and we can validate them. Change can be hard and kids may experience some uncomfortable emotions and behaviours this year. Give them love and support and let them know that you are proud of them for navigating this novel situation.
Practice a non-judgmental stance to model acceptance.
You may feel like the decision to send your kids back to school or keep them home for distance learning puts you between a rock and a hard place, and you are absolutely right! Please try to be non-judgmental towards yourself and other parents out there making this decision. You will always be able to find someone who agrees with you and someone who does not. If we shame each other for being “irresponsible” by sending kids to school, that does not help. If we shame each other for being “over-protective” by using distance learning, that does not help. Teach your kids that every family makes their own choice and that we have the job of respecting the choices of our neighbors, friends, and family.
Get your basics in check and agree on a routine.
Just going to put it out there that most of us have never pandemic-ed before and so it may not have gone super smoothly with the kids. Parents were a bit shell shocked after schools closed in March and many are still likely in the “what just happened?” mindset. Please know that getting through this with mental and physical health in tip top shape is not an expectation that health care workers have of families. We know that routines, sleep hygiene, proper nutrition, and good social connections are all fuel for wellness and we know that it has been difficult for these life aspects to align during COVID-19. Try your best to implement some sort of back to school plan that everyone can follow as a team. It’s a lot easier to deal with stress if we can rely on ourselves and our family members to follow through and support each other.
Handle COVID-19 legitimate health concerns.
This. Is. Happening. We are still in a health crisis that, although has had some momentum in the right direction, is certainly not over yet. If your kids have worries about the health aspects of attending school please talk to them about how to stay safe. Younger kids may just need to know that we wash our hands and do not hug great-grandma right now because she might get sick. Older kids may want to know about the scientific aspects of the virus and the efforts into researching a vaccine. Make sure to get any information about COVID-19 from reputable sources like Health Canada (https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/diseases/coronavirus-disease-covid-19.html) or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html)
If you or your child are experiencing a mental health issue or need to speak to a professional about COVID-19 anxiety, please reach out to us! HeadWay Clinic is here to help (https://www.headwayclinic.ca/).
Alyssa KoenderinkRegistered Psychotherapist
Call (705) 474-6000 to book an appointment with me!