In the next few weeks, most kids and teenagers will have returned to school. The beginning of any school year often generates feelings of nervousness, excitement, and the anticipation of what’s to come – for our kids and for us.
Let’s face it, we were really hoping that in this school year, we’d be basking in the past-pandemic glow. The beginning of the 2021-2022 school year is certainly unique, but not necessarily in the way we were hoping for. This academic year is the marker for most of our kids to return to full time, in-person learning. On top of the normal jitters about the academic year, it’s no surprise to learn the pandemic is causing additional concerns for parents and students.
Here are the five top things many kids are worried about this school year and how to help address them.
Back to Virtual Learning
One of the biggest worries children have is the possibility of returning to a virtual learning setting. Further complicating matters is this pesky and dangerous Delta variant. With this variant on the rise, parents and kids face realistic concerns about school districts once again shutting their doors. While not going to school may have at one point seemed like a dream come true, many students (particularly teens) have grown tired of the isolation, limited peer connections, and the myriad of challenges that come with a homeschool environment.
Anxiety tends to look different for kids than it does for adults. For younger kids, you might observe “typical” stress behaviors such as avoidance, irritability, anger, or impatience. However, you may also hear your kid or teen mention somatic complaints such as headaches, stomach pain, or muscle soreness.
While no one, including school districts, can predict the direction or outcome of the Delta variant, all parents want to ease their children’s fears. But how can we do this when the situation is so unpredictable? Some of the best ways are to assure them that their feelings are completely valid and being open about your own anxieties or worries. Your child will feel better knowing they aren’t alone in their fears.
The Fear of Large Groups
Many fear the spread and uncertainty of the Delta variant, especially for our kiddos under the age of twelve who can’t receive the vaccine. With more minors becoming sick, it’s no surprise that there’s a lot of anxiety about returning to school.
In the past year and a half, many students have spent most of their time with their immediate families. Now, students will be around their peers and teachers again. Transitioning from isolation to socializing in larger groups may be concerning to our kids.
To help your children with this, remind them they will never be pushed into participating in a school activity they don’t feel comfortable with. It will be a slow process to return to the new normal, so letting them go at their own pace will help ease their anxiety in large groups of people.
Worries Over Academics
It has been a challenge for many students to transition from in-person learning to virtual and back. One of the biggest concerns many of my clients currently have is how these changes will affect their unique learning styles. Repeatedly adapting to new ways of learning will likely cause many students to feel confused about what works best for them; especially for students who did well on their own at home.
If your kid or teen is expressing these specific worries, ask them to reflect on what they think will help calm their academic fears. If they can’t come up with anything, offer some suggestions: Reviewing the syllabus or agenda each day? Talking to another friend in the class? Emailing the teacher ahead of time to clarify expectations?
If at all possible, encourage your child to get familiar with everything! This includes the syllabus, calendar, class expectations…and even the school building. If your child is transitioning to a new building, schedule some time to tour the new building or participate in any student orientations. When we know what to expect, we feel less stressed.
Maintaining and Building Friendships
Perhaps the biggest setback students faced in the past year was the impact on their social circles. At a crucial time in their developing lives, kids were separated from their friends. While they may have communicated via social media, FaceTime, or texting, it wasn’t the same as being together. Now that they’re back in school, it’s common for them to worry about the social skills they didn’t develop over the past year. This may be especially true for children who are more introverted, and who may struggle to effectively communicate with their peers.
If your younger child is worried about making friends, ask them to draw out their fears on paper or act them out with their dolls or puppets. Role play with them a scenario where you can teach them how to respond in an anxiety-producing social situation.
Older kids may be willing to verbally share their anxieties or write them out in a journal. Both processes allow for the creative expression of worries. Regardless of age, you can support your child by reminding them that they successfully adjusted socially once before and they can do it again.
How To Keep Themselves and Their Families Safe
One of the top concerns students have is how they can keep themselves and their families safe from the virus. Many have concerns over how many times they should wash their hands, for instance. Older kids or teens may worry about being too close to other students or teachers, or not knowing their vaccination status.
As tempting as it is, avoid minimizing their fears by debating their points, or insisting that “Everything is going to be ok.” This could shut down the conversation, when what we really want as parents is more dialogue with our children.
Instead, teach your kid or teens active coping skills. One such skill is helping your child to brainstorm different ways of managing their fears: Taking a 20-min walk? Listening to music? Taking deep breaths? One helpful question to pose is this: “If you came to an adult with one of your biggest worries, how would you want mom, dad, or a favorite teacher to respond?”
Another strategy is to remind them of a time they overcame a big challenge or a time they experienced fear but did the scary thing anyway. This helps build courage and emotional resilience.
If your child or teen is struggling to return to school, there is hope. Reach out to their teacher or school counselor to provide occasional check-ins. School counselors may be able to offer your child some helpful tools to ease their school-based anxieties.
If your student continues to struggle, even after school staff intervention, consider finding a private therapist who specializes in youth mental health and anxiety.