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6 Expert Tips to Calm Back-to-School Anxiety for Families

published Aug 11, 2021
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I was caught off guard the first time I was struck with re-emergence anxiety. My oldest and I were about to step into Target for a quick milk-and-eggs pick up when I realized I had forgotten to grab his mask from home. My usually-stocked emergency mask stash was nowhere to be found either. The only one I had was the one on my face.

I’d been vaccinated for a few months but I’d still been masking mostly everywhere. Until today. I tied up the sides of my mask so it would fit my son’s face snugly, leaving my own face exposed. 

As the doors opened before us, both of us started to panic. “Are you sure you don’t need a mask, mama? Are you sure it’s safe?” Over his mask I could see his eyes wrought with worry and confusion. Inside, my own heart was starting to race and my body felt tense. After 14 months of wearing a mask in the name of safety, I wasn’t sure how to handle being unmasked.

Was I safe? Was he? Should we all just stay home indefinitely?

As it turns out, my son and I are not the only ones dealing with panicky feelings surrounding reopening. With the onset of the ruthless Delta variant and the constantly changing guidelines, feeling completely out of control is not uncommon. Caroline, a friend and mom of two in Minneapolis, MN, told me, “I was just getting used to feeling more comfortable being out and now I’m not even sure if I should be taking my kids to the grocery store.”

“We were so close to the end, I felt like,” Denise, mom of two in Oak Park, IL, noted. “I was getting excited for the kids to go back to school and be with their friends and now I’m not sure if I should be happy or worried,” she continued.  

Parenting experts Deena Margolin and Kristin Gallant, from Big Little Feelings, note, “With so many children at home over the last 18 months, returning to school can mean big changes to their daily routines and schedules: time away from one or both parents and siblings and introducing new teachers, friends, and environments.”

“Parents have had to deal with a rollercoaster of emotions as they’ve navigated keeping their kids safe through this pandemic,” explains Nidhi Tewari, LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker). It’s normal to worry about how we will react to this next phase. 

But if I’m being honest, it’s beginning to feel like mental and emotional whiplash.

So: what can parents do to cope with these emerging anxieties?

“Both positive and negative outlooks on change can be stressful,” explains psychotherapist and parenting coach Ana Sokolovic, MS. “We can feel that [re-opening] is a good thing and still worry about how well we’ll adapt to yet another form of the ‘new normal,’” she says. It’s not exactly like going back to the old and familiar way of life; all of these changes require mental, physical, and emotional energy in order to cope. 

With schools getting ready to open back up, many for the first time since March of 2020, it’s not surprising that anxiety amongst parents and children is on the rise. 

We spoke with experts to find out what this anxiety may look like in the family home and how to manage it all. 

Credit: Shutterstock

Look for the signs

“In young kids,” notes Sokolovic, “anxiety is likely to show through physical, emotional, and behavioral signs.” These are signs that can crop up anywhere, but are particularly evident at home, where kids feel safer to exhibit their worries and distress. You may find that routines that were once simple, like brushing teeth or sitting down to dinner, have become new battlefields. Perhaps your kids are withdrawing from family life, or maybe they are becoming more intense in their attachment. This is not a coincidence; it’s simply a symptom of change.

A child may:

  • Complain about frequent stomach aches or headaches without an apparent medical reason
  • Have significantly increased or decreased appetite
  • Have difficulty focusing 
  • Be more fidgety, restless, and irritable
  • Have sudden outbursts of frustration and anger
  • Lose interest in activities they enjoyed before
  • Insist on being more on their own
  • Avoid any school-related topics
  • Cry often or unexpectedly
  • Worry about things in the future 
  • Ask a lot of “what if” questions that invite others to reassure them
  • Have trouble falling or staying asleep

Parents, on the other hand, might experience different anxiety-related behaviors: having decision fatigue or emotional exhaustion, avoiding day-to-day decision-making, feeling overwhelmed by responsibilities, ruminating on “what if” scenarios, withdrawing from interactions, overthinking negative scenarios, or constantly refreshing news or school websites. This often manifests in family life through irritation or a lack of desire to make plans — sound familiar?

Keep them informed with a step-by-step plan

Kids like to be “in the know,” explain Margolin and Gallant. Be as clear as possible as to what they can expect things to look like and do this early and often, offering details and answering questions. “Let them know exactly what your plan is for them regarding going back to school, childcare, nannies, and babysitters and explain how these changes will manifest themselves in their day to day lives, using language and details they understand,” they add. This might sound like: “We will wake up, have breakfast, get dressed, then mommy will drive you to school. At school, I will kiss you and say goodbye, and you will stay at school with your teachers. Then I will pick you up after rest/nap time.”

This helps kids prepare themselves for what’s to come and begin to understand how their lives may look different as things open up again. If you’re aware of COVID changes that your kids might have to adjust to — like masks at school or desk barriers — talking about these things ahead of time could help ease the transition as well. 

How to start the conversation with kids

All of the experts I spoke to emphasized the same thing: it’s important to validate and connect with your child’s feelings. 

It’s not easy, but parents are encouraged to listen to their child express scary or confusing emotions, without interjecting. “Holding space for children and just listening can be extremely helpful,” explains Dr. Sandra Espinoza, PsyD. “Many parents feel pressure to offer solutions for their child’s anxiety but this can actually backfire,” she says, “Children feel relieved when their parent is able to acknowledge and validate what they are feeling.”

If you’re having trouble getting the conversation going with your child, try one of these conversation starters, as suggested by our team of experts:

  • “I’ve noticed you’ve been acting a little differently when we talk about going back to school. I care about you and want to make sure you’re okay. What’s going on?” 
  • “Is there something that worries you?”
  • “What would it be like for you to be back in school?”
  • “What is the most important thing you’ve learned during the pandemic?”
  • “What will you miss the most once you go back to school?”
  • “What are you looking forward to once you are back in school?”
  • “If you find it difficult to be back in school, who would you reach out to?”
  • “What helps you relax and have fun?”
  • “Is there anything that you would like to know more about?”

If your child is talking, but you’d like them to expand on their responses, you can try open-ended prompts like “Tell me more about that,” or “Help me better understand that,” adds Tewari. You could even echo their answer back to them, both to show that you understand, and to give them an opening to elaborate.

Help them write it out

For older kids who may be hesitant to converse aloud, try a thought diary, suggests Dr. Lea Lis, MD. “They can [write] down the negative thoughts, then [add] the counter thoughts which can then be turned into coping thoughts,” she explains. “This [exercise works as] cognitive reframing of the situation which means learning to change negative thoughts to more rational thoughts,” she says.

For instance, if your child writes, “I don’t feel safe outside of the home,” prompt them to counter those thoughts in a way that feels right to them. They might come up with something like, “I can be safe outside of the home because I wear my mask and am careful around others,” or “I know my school is safe because my teachers and administrators have made changes to keep us safe.”

It’s also okay to voice your own concerns to show them they’re not alone. But, Sokolovik warns, “It is important not to confuse your worry with theirs or to make them worried because you worry. Before addressing your child’s anxiety about returning to school, find an outlet to express and work on your own anxiety.”

For parents, this could mean many things — as self care so often does. Perhaps you are an extrovert who does better after seeing friends. Maybe you prefer a solo hike. Or, maybe like me, you actually find solace in connecting with friends. If your anxiety is affecting your ability to enjoy things you once looked forward to, seeking support from a professional is the best way to help yourself and your kids. 

Credit: Shutterstock

Extend the safety of home

After having been home with each other for so long, many feel secure in their homes with their families. Leaving the house to go anywhere can feel like a huge hurdle for some. 

As parents, we want our homes to be physically and emotionally safe zones for our children. We want them to feel protected and loved in their spaces. What we can also do is encourage them to find ways to feel safe and secure outside of the home too. A good place to start: ask your child what makes them feel safe. Then, use that information to create a “home extension” of sorts. 

“Start with something like ‘Yes, it makes sense you want to stay at home; we’ve been staying home for a long time and we like it here. I understand why you are finding it challenging to go back to school.’ This makes a child feel understood and seen,” says Dr. Espinoza. Once your child feels validated, it’ll be easier to find a way to collaborate on finding a solution that would work. You could say, “I know you’ve been nervous to go back and I have also heard you say you miss your friends? What do you think we can do to help you feel more confident to go back?” 

“We want to avoid saying things like ‘There’s nothing to worry about,’ and ‘School is fun though! You’ll love it once you’re there,’” add Margolin and Gallant. “These can sometimes make worries feel bigger and lead to more clinging, resistance, or melting down.” Remind them that they are safe, because feeling scared is often about safety. 

When I asked my son why he was so worried in Target that day, he said he didn’t want anyone in our family to get sick. Knowing that his anxiety stemmed around getting sick, we worked on developing a plan that made him feel safer: Carrying personal hand sanitizer in his backpack, keeping a healthy distance from other shoppers, and yes, always having an extra supply of masks in all the cars, bags, and backpacks. 

If your kids are worried about what back-to-school life will be like, consider making it more familiar. Print out a photo of their teacher and, if you can, the layout of their classroom. Take them by the school playground and show them all the things they’ll get to play with. Make small playdates with other kids in your grade. These steps of familiarization are crucial to extending safety. After all, feeling unsafe is often tied to uncertainty. If there’s an opportunity to remove some element of unknowing, embrace it! 

And for the things you don’t know, be honest but hopeful: “I’m not sure what exactly will happen when you get to school, but here’s a schedule we can look at together. I know everyone there is on your side, and will be working to make sure everything is okay for all the kids.”

Give yourself grace

This is all a lot to handle. Just as we thought we were making it over the hill and about to breathe easier, this transition is proving to be a hard one too. Living in a constant state of uncertainty is no easy feat and parenting while doing that is even more intense. 

“It truly has been a traumatic experience for many people,” says Dr. Espinoza. “People have lost jobs, family members, and friends and are experiencing PTSD-like symptoms because of the losses. It is unrealistic for parents to magically find a way to balance it all.”

We are all doing our best with the information and resources we have available to us. For many of us, we’ve been avoiding dealing with our own emotions of the past 16+ months in order to just make it through the day. This all takes a toll and is unsustainable in the long run, particularly if we want to guide our kids through these transitions too.

“No matter how busy you are, carve some private time in your schedule to reflect on how you feel and what you need,” says Sokolovic. “Find outlets to vent your thoughts and emotions. 

Be a kind, compassionate and nurturing companion to yourself through this process. Notice where you put pressure on yourself to do everything, and to do it perfectly. Notice where you deny the severity of everything you’ve been through and push yourself into exhaustion.” 

Recognizing our own emotions through all of this is integral in being able to begin releasing some of the weight we’ve been carrying for so long. And when we’re able to do that, we can be a better source of support and comfort to our kids. Plus, we can then model how to practice self care in sustainable and healthy ways. 

Practice breathing techniques together

When it all feels like too much, remember this one thing: breathe. Taking deep, slow breaths can work immediately to reduce stress and that sense of panic that can creep up. You’d be surprised at how quickly a deep breath can calm adults and children. 

Breathing exercises can also be used as a bonding tool for families, both before the school day and as a debrief when returning home. Take a minute in the car to do an exercise, or while you’re brushing your child’s hair; it doesn’t have to take a long time. Dr. Lis suggests Square Breathing as a mindfulness breathing technique that works for people of all ages: Breathe into your belly for 5 seconds through your nose, hold your breath for 5 seconds, breathe out through your mouth for 5 seconds, and hold the release for 5 seconds.

Remind kids that they can practice deep breathing throughout the day — when encountering conflicts with siblings, when faced with an unwelcome “no,” when they feel the panic rising. “[Explain how to] take a deep breath and relax your shoulders as you exhale — two little tricks to calm your nervous system,” add Margolin and Gallant. Kids do great with visuals: have them think of the breath as a balloon that gets tied off, then released. That breath balloon holds their anxiety, then carries it gently away. 

No one knows what this school year will bring, but we know parents will be carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders as their little ones head back to the classroom. It won’t be easy, but, with one another’s help, we’ll all figure it out. 

Over and over I’ve heard parent friends and other adults praise children for their resilience, their bravery, their steadfastness through these ever-changing times. They’ve done the impossible, it seems — managed to keep their cool and their cute through what can only be described as an actual disaster. And, I tip my hats to their parents, too. 

The truth is that we’re navigating this for the first time right along with our kids. And just like them, we’re doing a really incredible job. 

Disclaimer: If you are noticing any changes in your child’s behavior or your own behavior, it’s an indicator that seeing a therapist may be the next step. Some of these signs can include sleep and appetite changes, increased sadness or anxiety, clinginess or isolation, and changes in the ability to focus or be present. Any change in functioning is a reason to seek out support.