How to Make Sure Your Child is Mentally (and Physically) Prepared for Back to School

As a number of Pandemic-era Back-to-School seasons have come and gone, concerns over the mental, social, and physical development of kids continue to be on parents’ minds. It’s a time of year that’s exciting as it is nerve-wracking for kids and teens — so it totally makes sense that your kids may still be feeling some anxiety around getting back into their school year routines. 

Ammari Amani Edwards, LMSW at Chamin Ajjan Psychotherapy, says trends around bullying, and a lack of acceptance around minority identity statuses (such as race, poverty, or sexual orientation) are also causes for concern for teens when going back to school. 

“These issues are bringing to the surface issues students may not have had to experience so intensely while online learning and quarantining from the comfort of home,” she says. “These students may be experiencing symptoms of social anxiety, generalized anxiety or depression as a result, and need loved ones, friends, and authority figures such as teachers and mentors to provide compassion around their valid and very normal concerns.”

Dr. Sanam Hafeez, NYC Neuropsychologist Faculty Member at Columbia University, tells SheKnows that it’s important to recognize that there are still some challenges related to living through a (still on-going) pandemic that can contribute to heightened anxiety for kids returning to school.

There was no preparation for what they experienced. For some, it was more challenging than others, and the ways in which it challenged kids and teens were not always identical,” Dr. Hafeez says. “Some children may have residual PTSD, and others may have become more anxious as a result. Parents need to be extra patient, supportive, in tune with their children’s scholastic and social experiences, sleeping, eating, and other markers that indicate positive or negative mental health.” 

Below, some tips on how you can best help your kid prepare mentally and emotionally to go back to school.

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Validate their concerns

“Parents should not push away concerns by saying, ‘You have nothing to worry about,’ and close the book, so to speak,” says Dr. Hafeez. “It is important to find out what is anxiety-provoking for your child so that you have a dialogue and start to troubleshoot and problem solve before school starts.”

This way, she says, you can work on coping mechanisms, which might include having a school counselor involved, a tutor, a trusted sports coach, or a parent of a close friend, as an added support system to your child.

“It is also important to reiterate to your teen that they are not alone in their feelings and that many teens put up a ‘brave façade,’ but are feeling the same insecurity and sense of anxiety they are.”

Remind your child that feelings can change

Amani Edwards says it’s important to remind your children that there is typically a six-month adjustment period for major life changes and to “normalize that returning to school is an example of this. Students who adjusted well at the start of the pandemic can be reminded that this adjustment can resolve similarly with a hopeful and determined mindset to overcome their current fears and disappointments.”

She also suggests reminding your child that feelings are like waves as they come and go. “Helping the child to remember a time that they overcame difficult emotions may help. Remind them to check in at the six-month mark to track progress and increase mindfulness about their improved moods.”

Reassure them that they’re prepared

Particularly for kids who have anxiety around their health or the health of their loved ones, you can take some time to go over the steps your family takes to keep safe — from handwashing to the vaccines they’re scheduled to receive. With annual well visits, physicals, and other scheduled appointments, there can be tons of additional anxiety on deck — so having open and age-appropriate conversations about why these health steps are important and beneficial is a great way to soothe those worries. 

“[Vaccines] can protect against a serious illness and minimize the stress that comes with the threat of infection. By giving their physical health a priority, young people can improve their overall well-being and feel more in charge and empowered,” Jason Shiers, Certified Psychotherapist and Addiction Trauma ED Specialist at United Recovery Project tells SheKnows. “In addition to promoting a sense of responsibility for oneself and society, preventative measures can also benefit mental health.” 

For teens, for example, it can be a good time to talk about the Meningitis B and HPV vaccines and how receiving them can protect their health in both the short and long term. 

Instill confidence 

Instilling confidence in your child could be a great way to help them with their readjustment as they start to feel more like their best selves before the school year begins.

“Remind your child what they are good at and get them back involved in that during the summer months,” suggests Dr. Hafeez. “…If your child is a great tennis player, get them back out on the court. If they excel in painting, have them take a painting class. They need to re-establish their place in the world and a sense of belonging and who they were before the pandemic to get back to being themselves.”

While some kids might be reluctant at first in fear of “not being good at anything anymore,” she recommends allowing your children “to take baby steps back into their hobbies in low-pressure situations at first until they regain their footing.”

Help your child name their triggers

Amani Edwards recommends helping them identify what they’re struggling with and giving them easy tools to help them mark their progress. For anxious children, she suggests helping them learn more about what triggers their anxiety.

“They can then respond to the situation and choose a coping tool to manage intense feelings. Tools could be deep breathing, mood trackers, or practicing mindfulness meditation to help students remain present and non-judgmental in situations that may have caused significant distress in the past.” 

For students experiencing depression, she recommends a worksheet that tracks their activity progress, starting with small activities that take less energy, and then moving to a medium energy activity, and finally working to more challenging activities. “This way students are starting slow, then progressing when they feel they are confident and engaging in activities that are necessary and/or enjoyable.”

Consider if/when your child should seek outside help, like therapy

According to Dr. Hafeez, if a child is not getting back into the groove after about a month of school and is experiencing mood swings, anxiety, using drugs or alcohol, experiencing changes in appetite, sleep patterns, lack of socialization, apathy, and/or not fulfilling assignments or obligations, this would be the time to seek the help of a therapist.

Adds Amani Edwards: “When the child’s symptoms are creating an inability to work or go to school, if there is increased conflict and difficulty in relationships, increased risk of health issues, if that child has been hospitalized for mental health concerns or is contemplating suicide, it is time to reach out for professional support.”

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