By Eloise Weeks, Psychiatrist and Director of Behavioral Health for Kentucky Anthem Medicaid
The opening of this school year may again generate confusion due to intensifying COVID-19 Delta variant infections, mixed messaging on masking and communities divided on the best path forward for students. This confusion may lead to anxiety, which is why as kids head back to school, we adults need to recognize and understand what they may be going through.
As the old saying goes, children learn what they live – and they’re experiencing some of the same mental health impacts as adults. We are only beginning to measure the pandemic’s impact on school-aged children to better understand what the impacts really are and how this will affect kids going forward.
Children can sense and internalize emotions in their families, so when parents lost jobs or housing in the pandemic, children felt the repercussions. The isolation of online schooling and quarantine combined with the loss of milestone events like graduations and proms added to the sense of instability and loss.
Last fall, the CDC reported that the proportion of emergency room visits related to mental health had spiked 24 percent among kids aged 5 to 11. For 12 to 17-year-olds, the rate jumped to 31 percent. It’s no wonder that an American Psychiatric Association poll found more than half of parents of school-aged children were concerned about the mental health of their children, and more than a quarter of parents had sought professional mental health support for them.
Returning to school as Covid cases increase and guidelines change, parents and guardians should prepare for a potential roller coaster of emotions and coping mechanisms.
Ways to Help Kids Cope with Back to School Anxiety
Understand the unique pressures on children and teens.
Quarantine, online school and months of social distancing are a recipe for isolation. Prolonged feelings of detachment can impact development and can manifest as depression, anxiety, acting out or withdrawal. Consider your child’s actions and attitude over the last couple of months – are there any patterns that cause concern?
Engage in frequent conversations.
Perhaps the worst mistake we can make as caregivers is to assume that without any major behavior changes, the kids must be okay. We must actively engage children and teens to detect problems that they may not be able to name. Ask questions to your kids about the virus, school, teachers and friends. Understand from their perspective what they’re excited about as well as what may make them nervous.
If your child expresses any worries, dig deeper into what exactly makes them uneasy. Sometimes rumors from friends or a worrying story online is enough to cause anxiety.
Once your child has shared their worries, be sure to validate their emotions. Acknowledge that is it okay to feel afraid, sad, angry, etc. Let them know that these types of thoughts and feelings are not uncommon when experiencing a life-changing event.
Watch for nonverbal signals.
Some kids, especially younger ones, may not be able to verbalize that they feel sad or scared. An elementary school student might complain of stomach aches or not feeling well. Older children and teens may resist going to school, act more withdrawn or may begin acting out. Children and teens alike may experience changes in sleep and appetite.
Approach changes in behavior with understanding and patience.
Model positive social behavior.
Even if your child has no trouble returning to school, they are likely heading into an environment where peers and even school staff have differing opinions on everything from masking to vaccine safety. This is an opportunity to show your children and teens how to cooperate and work with people with whom they may have strong differences.
Following safety rules is part of coexisting in shared spaces like schools, so make a point to follow school guidance on masking and distancing while treating everyone respectfully. Setting an example about cooperation and respect is a life lesson your children will carry with them for years.
Ask for help.
If you suspect your child is struggling with the transition back to school or with any other life changes, reach out for support. Start by connecting with your child’s teacher or school counselor. Your physician or pediatrician can also direct you to resources for support.
We don’t yet know the long-term impacts of the ongoing pandemic for our young people, but one outcome might very well be an enhanced awareness of behavioral health.