When Your Child Is Worried About School Re-Opening
Here's a game plan to settle school re-opening worries.
Posted Sep 10, 2020
"Dr. Laura... School is reopening in person here, and my daughter (age 5) says she's feeling nervous about it. Any pointers on what I can to help her prep emotionally?"
If you live in a place where children are returning to classes live after the pandemic shutdown, your child may be both excited and nervous about going back to school. And you might have some of those same feelings, just as we parents often share our child's first-day jitters when the school year begins. Here's your game plan to settle those worries and help your child start school again with confidence. First...
If you're worried about your child returning to school, your child will pick up on your anxiety. Fear is infectious. So start by noticing your own feelings about your child's return to school.
a. Do you trust that it will go well? Great! Your confidence will reassure your child. Just be sure that you still listen to and empathize with your child's worries, so they feel free to share them with you.
b. Do you assume there will be some bumps (Wearing a mask all day? Getting to know a new teacher in such strange circumstances?), but have confidence that your child can do hard things with enough support from you? Good for you for helping your child develop resilience! Keep reading for more tips on how to support your child.
c. Are you a bit worried? Or even a nervous wreck? Good for you for noticing! That's the first step to calming yourself, so you can be that calm anchor for your child.
Your first job is to notice any discomfort in your body when you think about your child returning to school in person. Thumping heart? Tight throat? Butterflies in your stomach? Just notice and breathe into it. It's only fear. It's normal to feel fear during a pandemic, especially when you're worried about your children. That's part of being a parent.
Acknowledge that fear and then give yourself an antidote. Reassure yourself that whatever happens, you can handle it. (Fear is just thinking that you won't be able to handle something. But you've got this!)
Now consider the thoughts that are giving rise to those feelings. For instance:
- My child is highly sensitive and won't be able to handle the mask. What if they get thrown out of the classroom?
- My child has become very attached to me while they've been home. What if they balk on the first day?
The thoughts causing your fear are designed to prevent problems, but they're focused on the negative. What they're suggesting might not even happen. And if you notice them and take action to create a more positive outcome, you can almost certainly facilitate a happier outcome. For instance:
- My child is highly sensitive, so we've been practicing with the mask, and he's gotten a lot better at handling it. I've spoken to the teacher, and if he needs a mask break, the aide will take him outside the building for three minutes, a couple of times a day.
- My child has become very attached to me while she's been home. So we've been doing a lot of playing about separation to work out any anxiety she feels about going back to school. She and I have a whole plan for how she can reassure herself if she gets anxious on the first day.
So now that you've acknowledged your worries, start thinking about a plan that will support your child. Give yourself more inner resources to draw on by focusing on all the times that you knew just what to do to help your child relax and feel good. What you focus on is what you experience, so this will help shift you from anxiety to well-being and confidence. That's what you want your child to pick up from you.
Then, start the discussion...
Ask your child to tell you three feelings she has about returning to school:
Then, ask why she feels each thing.
For instance, if she says, "Excited, scared, worried," you might respond, "I hear you. Excited, and scared, and worried. Tell me about excited."
She might say: "I'm excited to see everyone again!"
You: "That will be so exciting, right? After all this time? And what about scared? Tell me about feeling scared."
She might respond by describing a specific fear:
- "I'm scared that there will still be germs at the school."
- "I'm scared that I'll feel left out because the other kids have been online with each other."
- "I'm scared that I won't understand the math because I wasn't doing the homework."
- "I'm scared that I will miss you a lot because I really liked being home with you."
- "I'm scared that you'll be too busy for me now because you're going back to work."
Acknowledge the fear:
Your answer will depend on what she says, of course. But your goal is not to talk your child out of the fear or worry, which will just make her feel she's all alone with it. Instead, offer understanding: "You're scared about that, huh? That is a scary thought. Tell me more."
- "I have loved being home with you, and I will never be too busy for you."
- "The school has very carefully sanitized every inch of the building and the playground."
"Hmm... I wonder what you could do if that happens? It's OK to feel that way—lots of kids do. It might feel scary, but it wouldn't be the end of the world. I think you could handle it if we think about it in advance, and you feel prepared. You're pretty resourceful! What could you do to help yourself?"
"I wonder what you could do to connect with one of the kids you like before you are back at school next week? Now that the lockdown is lifted, maybe we can have a playdate with your friend this weekend."
And, after you've listened as much as you can...
- Play bucking bronco with her on your back, so she shrieks with laughter as you lurch around the room, trying to toss her off.
- Play airplane and zoom her wildly around the house.
- Put your palms against each other and let her push you across the room, giving just enough resistance to make it fun.
Go for any kind of play other than tickling that gets your child giggling, with as much warmth as possible. (Tickling doesn't seem to release stress hormones and often makes kids more fearful because they aren't in control of it.)
Separation games are also useful if part of your child's anxiety about school starting is about separating from you. One game is "Please Don't Leave Me." When you have been reading to her, and she starts to get off your lap, pull her back to you and tell her how much you love holding her, and please don't go away from you ever, and you want to hold her always. Keep your voice light and playful rather than needy, so she feels free to pull away, and keep scooping her back to you and begging her to stay. The point of this is to heal those feelings inside her of being worried to let you go again now that she will have to do without you at school. In this game, she gets to push you away and reassure you that's it's OK for her to leave.
Another terrific game for separation anxiety is the Bye-Bye Game. It's a simple version of Hide and Seek that triggers a little separation anxiety, just enough to get her giggling. Say, "Let's play Bye-Bye. If you want me, yell Peanut Butter" (or whatever she would think is funny). Then hide behind the couch or the door for just a moment before you yell, "Peanut Butter!" and run out and hug her. Say, "I missed you too much to leave! OK, I will be brave! Let me try that again," and go hide again. Again, come back out before she yells for you, which should get her giggling, especially if you play-act being silly and excessively worried.
Keep playing this, with you trying to yell first—and not really leaving—as long as she is giggling. Again, this game helps your child to face her anxiety about being separated from you, but in a safe way. And since you are the one expressing fear, she can reassure you, which helps her feel reassured as well.
I'm sure you can come up with more rough-housing games that get your child giggling. Just notice what makes your child laugh and do more of it, no matter how silly it is. The more giggling, the better, when there's been so much fear and anxiety during this pandemic!
Is the return to school a challenge for most children, parents, and teachers? Yes! But when we face problems, and we have enough support, we develop the inner resources to manage those problems. That's how we develop resilience, not to mention new skills and capabilities. So take a deep breath and remind yourself, "My child can do hard things, with enough support." And, so can you!