Jul 28, 2020, 1:54:22 PM CDT Aug 6, 2020, 11:24:30 AM CDT

Back-to-school anxiety during COVID-19

Students are facing many changes as they return to school during the coronavirus pandemic. See ways to help.

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While back-to-school is typically a time of excitement, it's normal for kids to experience some degree of anxiety as a new school year approaches. Younger children may get nervous about leaving their parents, and older children may worry about academics or how they'll fit in with their friends after spending time apart during summer.

This year, COVID-19 may add to those stresses as children worry about themselves or their loved ones becoming ill. In addition, many normal routines will change as schools take precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The uncertainty of the situation and changes in routine can cause many students – and parents – to feel stressed and anxious.

"With the current pandemic, there's a lot we don't know, and that can be anxiety-provoking for all of us – especially for children who thrive on structure and routine," says Nicholas J. Westers, Psy.D., ABPP, a clinical psychologist at Children's Health℠ and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern. "Being able to cope with that uncertainty and recognize that it's okay to feel that way is an important part of supporting mental health during this time."

What are signs your child is feeling anxious about school?

Children may show their anxiety in different ways. You know your child best, so be on the lookout for changes in your child's behavior and mood, such as:

  • Increased defiance or irritability
  • Disturbances in sleep
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lack of concentration
  • Less energy
  • Physical symptoms like nausea, muscle tension or dizziness
  • Refusal to go to school
  • Sadness or crying

If your child is showing any of these signs, they may have anxiety about returning to school or COVID-19 in general.

How to support your child's mental health during COVID-19

If your child is experiencing anxiety related to COVID-19, it's important to discuss their feelings and have open and honest conversations.

"Downplaying the seriousness of COVID-19 may not be helpful," says Dr. Westers. "Most of the time, our children know what is going on to an extent. Simply not talking about it will not alleviate anxiety; in fact, that might cause them to have more questions. It's important to acknowledge the situation in age-appropriate ways and offer support."

How you help your child as they transition back to school may depend on what type of anxiety they are experiencing and their age. For instance, children under age 12 are more likely to have separation anxiety and might need reassurance about being away from you, especially after spending increased time together due to the pandemic. Older children may feel unsure about how changes might affect their social connections or feel frustrated by perceived limitations on their freedom.

Dr. Westers recommends trying some of these techniques to help your child cope with back-to-school anxiety and stress during COVID-19:

  • Check in with your child frequently and listen to their concerns. Make sure to validate their emotions, letting them know that their concerns and frustrations are understandable.
  • Help your child focus on what they can control in the fight against the pandemic, such as hand washing, wearing a face mask and practicing social distancing.
  • Ensure your child is getting enough sleep, being physically active and eating healthy food to support a healthy body and mind.
  • Encourage your child to do more of what they enjoy most, whether reading, playing outside or other activities.
  • While plans may continue to change, explain to your child what you do know about what the school year or classroom will look like to help them mentally prepare.
  • If your child is going to participate in virtual or remote learning, take steps to set them up for success academically, physically and emotionally. See tips to support virtual learning.
  • Whether your child will be returning to school in person or virtually, it is important to ease them back into a structured daily routine and sleep schedule.
  • If possible, visit your child's school ahead of the first day of classes or allow your child to meet their teacher in a social distancing situation.
  • Help your child adjust to COVID-19 precautions such as wearing a face mask by practicing at home. It is okay to empathize with your child if they find wearing a mask uncomfortable. Let them know that although it can be unpleasant at times, wearing a mask is an important way we can help protect others. See more tips to help children adjust to wearing a mask.
  • For older children, remind them that they are helping protect others and doing good for their community by following health precautions.
  • Set up ways for your child to continue to socialize safely with their friends over the phone or video chat, especially if they participate in distance learning.
  • Teach your child breathing exercises they can do when they feel anxious.
  • Send positive or encouraging notes in your child's lunch or backpack.

Dr. Westers encourages parents that children are resilient but cautions that it's important to pay attention to signs of anxiety during this time. If your child is prone to anxiety and continues to have difficulty coping, do not hesitate to seek professional help and support.

Lastly, it's important to acknowledge that this time of uncertainty is stressful for parents, and that parents should take steps to care for themselves, too.

"We know from research that children can tell when their parents are stressed and anxious," says Dr. Westers. "Talk to your child about your own feelings and explain the ways that you cope with anxiety. Modeling healthy behaviors and coping skills is one of the best ways you can support your child during this time."

For more information to help your family navigate returning to school during the pandemic, visit our COVID-19 back-to-school guidance page

Learn more

Children's Health is committed to remaining a trusted source of health information and care for you and your family during this time. See more resources to keep your family healthy at the Children's Health COVID-19 hub.

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