Back to School … in a Pandemic?

Back to School…in a Pandemic?

For many of us, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought new stressors and worries. With schools, extracurricular programs, and playgrounds shut down, children have experienced major change in their routines and social and family relationships. A recent study by Children’s Mental Health Ontario found that approximately one third of parents noticed a decline in their child’s mental health due to being home from school, and more than half of parents observed changes in their child’s behaviour (e.g. irritability, sadness).

Parents are working to manage their own worries and those of their children, balance the logistical issues of online and hybrid model schooling, and to predict the unpredictable. Uncertainty is a common cause of anxiety, and can lead to feelings of powerlessness and a realization about our lack of control. Furthermore, the start of the school year can be a challenge for some children, even in the absence of a global pandemic. The anticipation of returning to school can worsen pre-existing issues, such as low mood, social anxiety, generalized worries, irritability, difficulty adjusting to change, academic and learning challenges, and other social and behavioural issues. This year, with children mandated to wear masks at school, those with sensory issues may experience greater difficulty as well. Parents might also experience some of these symptoms, or heightened stress and parental burnout as they seek to balance their roles as parents/caregivers, employees/employers, spouses, and more.

In light of these challenges, what can we do to help our children and ourselves?

  •  Talk to your kids. Ask them how they are feeling, about their worries and their fears, and about the changes they have experienced during the pandemic. Sometimes a listening ear is all that is needed for a child to feel seen and validated.
  • Talk to other parents. It can be reassuring to know that others are experiencing some of the same worries and concerns. When we share experience, we feel less alone. Other parents may also have helpful suggestions for how to navigate this time, especially with kids.
  • Reinforce routines. Continue to practice consistent school, hygiene, and sleep routines. This may include going through after-school activities in a certain order, (e.g. hand washing, snack, homework), practicing proper mask wearing, and keeping a regular bedtime (even on weekends!). Routines provide a sense of familiarity, stability, and comfort.
  • Seek the advice of a professional. Taking a proactive approach to mental health can mitigate some potentially negative effects of the return to school. A therapist can work with you and your family to normalize fears and struggles, put in place strategies to strengthen your coping skills and resilience, and optimize your mental health.

Do you have other suggestions for supporting children and their families during the pandemic? Please let us know.

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