Under the best of circumstances, back to school can be an anxiety provoking time. It’s not uncommon for the transition and associated uncertainty to prompt some worry and concern. Children may struggle with separation, express concerns about keeping up academically, or worry about navigating friendships.
This year’s back to school transition has been particularly stressful, for kids and parents alike. In addition to typical concerns, kids are also burdened with a number of changes to the predictable structure and routine of school and a lot of unknowns. They are worried about navigating new rules regarding social distancing and mask wearing and how changes in school structure will affect their social connections. Moreover, kids are more thoughtful and aware than we give them credit. They’re worried about staying healthy, the health of their teachers, friends, and loved ones - particularly grandparents or immunocompromised family members living in the home.
There are a number of things we can do to best support children during the transition back to school. We’ve distilled some of the most helpful ideas from mindfulness-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy into the acronym BACK for Back to school to help parents remember to support their children’s Basic needs, validate and Accept their experiences, support healthy Coping, and Keep kids engaged and connected.
B: Address Basic Needs: Children and adults alike are more capable of handling stress when we’re well rested, well fed, and feeling balanced. Parents should continue to work on establishing back to school bedtime and morning routines, focusing on a healthy diet, physical activity, time outdoors, and making time for joy and relaxation. If parents notice changes in kids’ eating habits, sleep, concentration, or behavior, this may suggest the back to school transition is weighing heavily on them and causing undue anxiety. Whereas young children may tantrum, have meltdowns, or become defiant or aggressive, older kids may become irritable, complain of head or stomach aches or start avoiding or withdrawing from things they previously enjoyed.
A: Listen, Validate & Accept your child’s experiences (without projecting your own): Parents should make time to check in frequently with their kids (and themselves). With the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic, parents may be tempted to avoid or dismiss their child’s concerns by telling them not to worry or that everything will be fine. However, this may leave children with more questions and less support. Parents should discuss their child’s feelings in calm, open and honest conversations. Acknowledge the situation in age-appropriate ways and offer support. Recognizing that it’s okay to feel worried is an important part of supporting mental health during this time. Knowing that kids don’t have to handle all of this alone is a powerful gift.
C: Support Healthy Coping: It’s hard to see our kids suffer and we can relate to many of the hardships they are experiencing. It’s easy to jump in and attempt to solve their problems, but each challenge is an opportunity for children to learn more about themselves and develop new skills. Parents can support their kids in using mindfulness and relaxation skills to respond to physical symptoms of anxiety, calm down, and think clearly. They can also help kids engage in creative problem solving to identify helpful plans for responding to worry and concerns. Parents can help kids engage in more balanced thinking in the face of uncertainty, including focusing on what they can control, including hand washing, mask wearing, and social distancing. The main goal for parents is to be supportive, not exacerbate their child’s worries, and communicate belief in their child’s competence to handle difficult situations.
K: Keep Kids Engaged and Connected: Parents should also insure that kids are appropriately connected with social support and activities that provide them with meaning and purpose. Friends, family, school counselors, special education personnel, and extra curricular activities can provide powerful and necessary support and can serve as threads of stability in an otherwise unpredictable time. Although engaging in social connection and activities during the COVID-19 pandemic definitely takes creativity and can be challenging, practicing challenging activities can help children gain confidence in their abilities and reduce feelings of anxiety. Things will likely change, and that’s okay, but our kids should know who they can turn to for help. Parents should not hesitate to seek professional help if difficulties persist.