Editor’s Note: Dr. Neha Chaudhary is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. She is also the cofounder of Brainstorm, Stanford’s Lab for Mental Health Innovation, and adviser to Brightline, a virtual behavioral health home for kids and families.
For many parents whose children have attended school online for the better part of a year, mass vaccinations could mean looking ahead to what life with in-person instruction could be.
We all must continue to take Covid safety precautions for now, but at the same time we very well might be in the homestretch of a life-changing journey of over a year.
Most of the families I see in my child psychiatry practice are trying to prepare for schools reopening, wondering what challenges to anticipate and what tools they might need. This is what I tell them.
It’s good to plan ahead
The more you plan ahead as a family, the more it will alleviate any worries your child may have and instead equip your little one with the tools needed to feel confident through the transition forward.
If you’re aware of the school’s safety precautions, review them together so there aren’t surprises when your child first goes to school. If you have higher-risk family members you are concerned about, explain what that means for your child and the extra precautions that might entail compared to what their friends might need to do.
Make contingency plans for changes or slip-ups, like a mask falling off or falling on the floor or accidentally forgetting to wash hands.
While adults might forgive their mistakes and move on, kids might worry they have done something wrong and freeze in their tracks in a way that’s unhelpful. Prepping in advance (and carrying extra masks and wipes) helps us stay collected and sharp and think with our rational brains before any potential emotions or worries take over.
Let’s talk about our worries
Have a family meeting where you talk to your children about their worries, fears and excitement. What are they looking forward to most? What are they not? Give them a safe space to synthesize coherent thoughts, hone awareness of their own feelings, and share what’s on their mind so they aren’t holding it all in.
You may discover that the fears you think they have are only your own, and your child is purely excited, looking forward to seeing people again in person and learning in that environment. Whatever it is, this will be a big transition, and it deserves a dedicated space to talk about it.
Anticipate some anxiety and nerves
Being around people again may come with anxiety or nerves for kiddos who have been worried about getting sick. If you’re able to anticipate these nerves, you can come up with some ways to cope with them when they arise. Practicing reframing negative thoughts as more positive ones can be helpful to do in advance.
If your child says he is worried that he will get sick, practice more positive self-talk that counters the worry, like “I know I’m worried I will get sick, but I also know I’ll be wearing a mask and keeping distance from other kids, so really I am doing what I need to keep myself healthy.”
You can also practice deep-breathing techniques, like inhaling through the nose for four counts, holding your breath for seven counts and exhaling slowly through the mouth for eight counts when a feeling of panic or worry arises at school.
It sends signals to your brain that are calming and lower stress — exactly what kids will need if these feelings come up when you’re not around.
Proactively check in about mental health
This was a collective trauma, and we don’t yet know the impact that it’s going to have long-term. We do know that rates of anxiety and depression have been soaring in kids and teens as their usual structure, guidance, coping mechanisms and, for many, even basic needs like food security have been ripped out from under them by the pandemic.
We also know from past pandemics that symptoms related to mental health have historically lasted many years after periods of isolation.
Parents should plan to proactively check in about their child’s mental health, even if it has never before come up as a concern. Look for signs and symptoms that something is wrong, like isolation, irritability, low mood, difficulty sleeping, lack of motivation, lack of enjoyment of normal activities, or concerns about safety.
I’d recommend having a very low threshold to getting professional help. When in doubt, ask your pediatrician. You can also go to a therapist, school counselor or psychiatrist for an evaluation to see if there is something that needs treatment, or for reassurance that what your child is experiencing is a normal reaction to the current stressor.
Don’t expect everything to change overnight
This is a big transition, and just as it took a while to figure out remote work and learning (if that even happened), it will take a while to reintegrate back to in-person school and the way of life that surrounds it.
Were grades slipping during the pandemic? They may not suddenly go up. Was social life nonexistent? It may not snap back into play overnight; in fact, socialization might feel awkward for a while.
What’s more, everyone’s routines look different from how they did before. Sleep cycles are off. Commutes will have to come back. Mealtimes might shift. Practically all routines may have to change to adapt back to in-person school. The best thing you and your child can do is to set realistic expectations and anticipate that getting into a new and stable groove will take some time.
Stay flexible and adaptable
As with any transition, re-entry into in-person schools is not going to be a perfect science, so anticipate hiccups and be ready to roll with the punches. Maybe an adverse event at the school leads to a closure again, or cases in your local community rise, causing concern. Maybe protocols at school continue to change.
Families should try their best to stay mentally flexible and ready to adapt, recognizing that for some time, things will be in a dynamic state before they settle down into something more consistent. Parents can communicate with school to stay on top of what the latest is, and brainstorm together with a school representative like a counselor on how best to support your kid, given the changing circumstances.
Be present and consistent
Kids need stability during times of change. Try your best to be present, predictable and consistent. You might be the only part of their lives — and minds — that feels that way right now. Be there for them and follow their lead as much as you can.
This transition back to school won’t be easy, but it hopefully will mark the beginning of communal healing for kids and families everywhere.
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If your child’s reactions seem different — perhaps snippier than usual or overreacting to seemingly small stressors — the best thing you can do is meet the reactions with compassion, warmth and calm, instead of reacting yourself. If you channel a peaceful energy, you’ll be able to share that with your kids when they need it the most. And they’ll need it.