kids mental health

Two local psychologists on how to emotionally prepare kids to go back to school

Children are experiencing stress and anxiety from the pandemic as well

The pandemic has created anxiety and stress in all of our lives, and, unfortunately, our kids are no exception. For many young people, the normal back-to-school season nerves will be amplified by a return to a classroom situation that looks significantly different than it has in years past. We talked to two mental health experts about how to help your child cope with back-to-school amid the pandemic.

Open communication

Although it can be tempting to shield our kids from information about the pandemic, Nicole McCance, a Toronto-based clinical psychologist (and mom of young twins) stresses that it’s essential to keep your children informed, albeit in an age- appropriate way. “We all tend to be more anxious with little information, because our anxious brain fills in the gaps,” says McCance. “So the more information you give them the better.”

Mishy Elmpak, a Thornhill-based psychologist, adds that talking openly about back-to-school season amid the pandemic creates the opportunity to address your kids’ concerns and provide emotional support. “This message that we’re here for you, that we give you support, that is very important and it cannot be said often enough,” says Elmpak.

Look for signs of stress

Elmpak explains that it’s important to learn to recognize how your child expresses anxiety or fear. She says that regressing back to behaviours exhibited at earlier stages of development is a common sign of stress in younger children. “They might be clingy or starting to wet the bed again or going into baby talk,” says Elmpak. “That is a sign that they need more attention, that they need more support or they just need more care from their parents.”

She also notes that children might also become more irritable or withdrawn in response to the stress of returning to school. “The way parents can understand their children better is just to spend a little bit more time with them and do that through play, through various games, through doing things that children enjoy so that the children open up a little bit more and we can understand their concerns.”

McCance notes that emotional stress in kids often manifests physically. “Kids tend to be quite somatic, which means that they feel things in their body,” says McCance. “If they’re complaining about headaches or tummy aches, that could be anxiety.”

Monitor your own anxiety

Creating a home environment that feels safe and calm can go a long way toward helping your kids manage the stresses they might be experiencing at school.

“It’s really important to remember that kids are like sponges, so you want to monitor your own anxiety as a parent,” says McCance. “You want to make sure that you’re practising self-care and managing your own anxiety because they’re just going to pick up on that.”

Elmpak cautions that parents should be conscious of when and how they talk about the pandemic because it’s easy for kids to overhear parts of these conversations and jump to conclusions. “Children are very good at improvising and making things up in their own mind that might not necessarily be reality,” she says.

Check in regularly

Although your kids are probably used to some realities of living amid the pandemic, such as wearing masks and practising physical distancing, returning to school in the COVID era will present some new emotional learning curves. “What they haven’t experienced yet is being around large groups and friends and just the pressure of being in school [amid the pandemic],” says McCance.

“Kids don’t have the vocabulary or awareness to tell you that, for example, ‘Hey mom, I’m feeling resentful,’ ” says McCance. She notes that parents should pay particular attention to their kids’ grades, eating and sleep schedules over the coming weeks, as these can all be indicative of how well they’re adjusting.

Elmpak adds that the return to school adds a new potential opportunity for your kids to hear information about the pandemic from peers, teachers, etc., that might worry them. She recommends that as often as possible parents spend extra time with their kids when they return home from school each day to better understand what they’re feeling and experiencing. “It’s very important for parents to talk to their children and see what concerns them and what information they have and then correct that information,” she says.

Work on coping strategies

Elmpak suggests teaching your kids self-calming strategies to use when they feel overwhelmed or anxious can also be helpful. She says there are several apps that can aid with this, including Stop, Breathe & Think, as well as Smiling Mind.

McCance recommends maintaining a daily family routine, which can help alleviate any feelings of uncertainty your kids might be experiencing and help them regain a sense of control.

McCance adds that extra hugs and cuddles can make a surprisingly big difference. “If you think about it, they’re not able to give high-fives or hug their friends anymore, but at least, at your family level, you can give them extra cuddles before bed and before they walk out the door for school,” she says.

Article exclusive to TRNTO