How can parents help support the mental health of their kids and ensure the upcoming school year is a positive one—no matter where “school” is or what it looks like?
In March, children and teenagers packed up their pencils, notebooks and school supplies before heading home, under the impression that they had an unexpected week off from school as the nation confronted the evolving coronavirus pandemic. However, a week off from school turned into two weeks. Two weeks turned into a month, and a month turned into the remainder of the semester. Students were left to complete classes via Zoom or by homeschooling with their parents.
Now, as summer comes to a close and a new school year begins, parents in many states are facing a difficult decision. Many schools are offering online learning, in-person classes or a hybrid of both choices. Should kids and teenagers get back to their old routines and return to school, or should they continue their classwork online?
Ultimately, that’s a decision that every family should make for themselves. But no matter whether you send your kids to school this year or side in favor of online learning and homeschooling, it’s critical to make sure that their mental health is supported. Research shows that children are “experiencing mental distress due to the disruptions of the closure of schools, activities, and maintaining social and physical distancing,” according to Psychology Today.
So how can parents help support the mental health of their kids and ensure the upcoming school year is a positive one—no matter where “school” takes place? Here are a few strategies.
> Stay calm. No matter what school looks like this year, it’s important to keep a positive attitude about it. Kids take emotional cues from the adults in their lives. If Mom and Dad talk negatively about the upcoming school year, then the children in the house likely won’t be excited about it either. Managing your emotions, remaining calm and reassuring your kids about the year ahead will help smooth the transition.
> Figure out what your child knows. Kids comprehend more than adults may realize. It’s important to find out what your children have seen or heard on TV or social media about COVID-19, so you can discuss their concerns or dispel any misinformation. Have age-appropriate conversations about what’s happening around the world, and talk to your kids about where to find the facts—pointing them to resources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or Nemours KidsHealth.
> Check in regularly. Keep an eye out for signs of stress and anxiety, such as behavioral changes, nervous habits, withdrawing from friends or family, or difficulty concentrating. Kids or teenagers may overhear conversations about financial stress, see news stories about increasing COVID-19 cases and deaths, or hear other distressing reports. Add these worries to the everyday pressures that kids already face—like schoolwork, friendships and more—and kids can easily succumb to overwhelming stress. “Engage children in creative activities, such as playing and drawing, to help them express and communicate any negative feelings they may be experiencing in a safe and supportive environment,” advises UNICEF. “This helps children find positive ways to express difficult feelings such as anger, fear or sadness.”
> Help kids find safe ways to connect. Many children and teenagers have been isolated from their friends for several months—and that may continue for adolescents who don’t return to school this fall. Isolation can even occur for kids who do go back to school, as many districts are limiting group activities in classrooms. Technology is a great way for kids to stay connected through the use of online games, social media and videoconferencing platforms. However, the internet can be dangerous for children and teenagers. To keep kids safe, use a virtual private network (VPN) and talk to them about being cautious online. Keep devices with internet access in public areas of the house, and keep track of your kids’ passwords.
> Take care of yourself, too. When you’re on an airplane, the flight attendant instructs you to put on your oxygen mask first before helping others. Why? Because if you run out of oxygen, you’re no help to anyone else on the plane. Keep that in mind when caring for the mental well-being of your kids and teenagers. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or need someone to talk to, don’t hesitate to ask for help. You can call the National Parent Hotline at 1-855-427-2736 and get emotional support from a trained advocate, or call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) helpline at 1-800-662-437. Remember, if you have questions about your child’s physical or mental health, a call to the pediatrician’s office can help you navigate any uncertainties.