How to help your child deal with back-to-school anxiety
A stressful time for children can only be more so with COVID-19 as a backdrop
Schools across Prince Edward Island are set to reopen this week. And with the COVID-19 pandemic still ongoing, what's ordinarily a stressful time for children may be more so this year.
"It's of course natural to have some fears about being back in enclosed spaces with different people than we've been spending time with all summer," says Christina MacLean, a psychologist with P.E.I.'s Public Schools Branch.
MacLean said it's typical for children of all ages to develop some mild to moderate anxiety as they transition back to the classroom.
"There's nervousness about who the teacher's going to be, or what the teacher's going to be like, or what new students will be in the class," she said.
"If kids are going to a new school, just hoping that they can find a way around and nothing embarrassing will happen, you know. Those kinds of things come up."
Changes in behaviour around the time when school starts can be good cues as to whether a child is having some anxiety.
"Maybe kids are staying up even later and having trouble getting out of bed in the day," she said. "Or [their] appetite has changed — so if kids are seeming to eat more, or much more, or much less than usual."
Room to decompress
One way parents can make the transition easier is to give children some breathing room outside of school.
"It's important to pay attention to your child's cues," she said. "They may or may not be self-aware enough to notice that maybe they're more irritable than usual, or seemingly more stressed than usual. So I think it's important to have some flexibility there with your expectations with your child."
Parents could allow for some leeway as to when their children have to do their chores, for example, while still being firm and indicating they have to be done. This way, MacLean said, a routine can be preserved while reducing the possibility they feel overwhelmed by too many expectations.
Physical activity can also be a great outlet for stress. MacLean said encouraging children to get moving can decrease their tendency to ruminate, or think unhelpfully about a situation.
"Doing physical exercise really helps us be grounded in our physical selves, in our bodies," she said.
She said helping children with some coping mechanisms, such as relaxation and breathing, can also make a big difference.
She said it's important for parents to not do all the problem solving themselves, but work with their child to find solutions to the problems.
"Some kids, when they're anxious, tend to just ask repeatedly the same questions to parents so that parents can give reassurance that everything's going to be okay," she said. "I think it's really important to certainly discuss any issues that a child might be concerned about, but really focus on [giving] the children the tools that they might need."
And as parents tend to their children's mental health needs, MacLean said it's also important they don't forget to check on themselves as well.
"Certainly in the pandemic, I know a lot has changed for folks in terms of lifestyle or employment, seeing families far away," she said.
"Sometimes our own anxiety can trickle down to our children. So sometimes we're overestimating their struggles because we're struggling… I hope parents are reaching out if they need support in some concrete or other ways."