Back to School After the Shutdown: Helping Kids and Parents

Coping with mixed feelings about returning to school.

Posted Sep 02, 2020

Giftpundits/Pexels
Source: Giftpundits/Pexels

by Elissa R. Gross, Psy.D.

Kids have mixed feelings about returning to school this fall; both excited and apprehensive. While most look forward to seeing their friends, being less “cooped up” and enjoying more social interaction, many also feel scared, nervous, and reluctant. And it's important for parents to be aware of this.

There is still so much uncertainty surrounding what to expect with changing schedules, including rotating in and out of school and having a “hybrid” of in-person classes and online work.  For many, returning to school may be especially hard after getting comfortable being at home. Others worry about having to wear masks all day and being physically distanced from friends and teachers.

In order to best help our kids and teens prepare for the return to the classroom, we must first understand both our own and our children’s feelings about the transition back to school. With this awareness, we as parents can do several things to support our kids during this difficult time.

The following are some recommendations to help parents understand and better cope with their own feelings about their children’s return to school. 

1. Accept that there is no “right” answer.

  • Many parents feel full of dread, panic, and apprehension about the decision about whether to send their kids back to school.  
  • Accept that you will feel conflicted about the decision you are facing.
  • Realize that there is no one right answer.
  • Focus on the risks and benefits, and then use this information to make rational choices.  
  • Once you come up with a plan, you will most likely have to deal with the feelings of worry, guilt, fear, and uncertainty.
  • Work on accepting difficult thoughts and feelings as opposed to struggling against them.  

2. Acknowledge that we cannot control what will happen once our kids go back to school.

  • Most parents don’t feel satisfied with the options presented to them and may need to work on accepting that this is the best we can do right now.
  • It is important to accept that we cannot predict what will happen.
  • It will help to stop trying to fight the feelings of discomfort and uncertainty, but rather to accept that these feelings are normal and do your best to stay focused on the positive aspects of the return to school.
  • Know that it's normal to be worried and uncomfortable.
  • Distinguish between productive and unproductive worries. You will be worried, but it's what you do with the worry that is important. For example, if you are concerned that your kids will not follow the rules of social distancing, do not ruminate about this, but rather, make sure to review and reinforce them.
  • Consider the logistics of blended learning, and then problem-solve and make concrete decisions about how your family will manage a revolving schedule/hybrid approach to education.
  • Try to focus on the positive as opposed to the negative; predicting that this will “not work” may increase your own anxiety, and ultimately your children’s anxiety.  

3. Some of the worries children and teens may be experiencing:

  • The sudden and unexpected changes that lockdown imposed on everyone are likely to have left kids and teens feeling very uncertain. For some, there is fear of a second wave of COVID and a second lockdown.  
  • Many kids and teens have a general sense that things used to be safe and now they aren’t.
  • Many kids may lack confidence in the adults in their lives because adults are having trouble agreeing about what to do.
  • Kids’ sense that they can rely on adults has been diminished.
  • Some kids feel safer at home; the lockdown has been a “respite” for many kids and teens. Some kids feel safer at home than in public, and therefore returning to school may be more stressful.
  • Different kids have different coping skills in dealing with these experiences. Those with less effective coping skills may struggle more with anxiety about returning to school.
  • Many kids and teens are experiencing feelings of grief and loss over the many changes in lifestyle that they have experienced.
  • Most kids and teens feel that going back to “normal” isn’t the same after COVID-19.  Many worry that it will be difficult to make new friends with the social distancing rules and the hybrid schedule.
  • Being away from school and returning to an environment that has changed can be anxiety-provoking, especially when there is still so much unknown about how schools will handle day to day life and maintain safety precautions.

4. Once parents understand their own, and their children’s, concerns about returning to school this fall, the following are some ways that parents can support their kids and teens with the transition:

  • Have an open conversation about how your kids are feeling about going back to school. Try to be proactive about these conversations, making sure to stay as calm as possible. Try hard to manage your own emotions about it.
  • Validate your kids’ feelings and make sure that they know that feeling nervous, worried, scared, conflicted, etc. is normal.  
  • Reassure them about safety measures being put in place.
  • Remind them of the positives, such as seeing their friends and meeting their new teachers.
  • If school is starting slowly/with rotations etc., your child may be worried about not being with his or her friends. Encourage ongoing contact with friends he/she won’t be in school with via things like FaceTime, etc.
  • Problem-solve any concerns together.  For example, how they will manage their schoolwork when feeling stressed about the changes in routine and about COVID-19 in general.
  • Kids may be distressed about having to wear masks all day. Validate their concerns and frustration, while also reminding them of how important it is to wear masks to prevent the spread and keep them safe.
  • Remind them that even though they are going back to school, they still need to follow precautions such as frequent handwashing, covering a cough or sneeze.
  • Be aware of your children’s mental health: notice things like anxiety (e.g., difficulty sleeping and concentrating) and depression (e.g., sadness, lack of motivation, crying, changes in sleeping and eating patterns). Address these issues right away by talking to your child and then seeking counseling if indicated.
  • Keep the focus on helping kids to know what they can control; for example, practical things like organizing and preparing for school, washing hands, wearing masks, and following the rules of social distancing.
  • Encourage an ongoing and open dialogue with your kids and teens as they return to school.  Be proactive in asking how school is going, what it is like for them, and what things are going well and what things are difficult.  
  • Make sure your kids know that it is ok to share all their feelings about school, especially their concerns and things they find stressful so you can work to problem solve as you go along.