Satish Shashidhara, DO, is a board certified Child & Adolescent psychiatrist with Inova Behavioral Health Services. Dr. Shashidhara is the Medical Director for the Adolescent Mental Health Unit at Inova Fairfax Medical Campus.
As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, and with little to no warning, children and adolescents saw all of their routines upended by lockdowns. They needed to quickly adapt to isolation and remote schooling. Now that schools are returning to in-person learning, your child may be anxious or fearful. Here are some tips that parents can use to help their child transition back to in-person school successfully.
Why is the transition to in-person school problematic?
When children were pulled out of in-person school – although it was necessary for their physical well-being – the year at home may have had significant mental and emotional affects. As humans, we learn resilience, and we develop social skills, through practice. In 2020, kids lost a year of practice developing and using those coping strategies that can help us advocate for ourselves and navigate tough situations.
Although any child can have trouble transitioning back to in-person school, we can expect that certain groups will feel particularly challenged. For example, children who are already socially anxious found relief in remote schooling, because it removed in-person interactions with peers and adults. Heading back to in-person school may cause those anxieties to resurface. Kids who are transitioning to a different level of education may also struggle, as they leave behind their familiar school and peer group, in which they were among the oldest, for a new peer group and new environment, in which they’ll be among the youngest.
Fortunately, there is a lot that parents can do to help children and adolescents dust off those rusty social skills as they return to in-person school.
Tips to help kids develop social skills, manage anxiety, and transition to in-person school smoothly
- Encourage your child to join groups and participate in activities that encourage teamwork. These activities help develop social intelligence and can help kids going forward.
- Prepare children by openly discussing what they’re anxious about. Questions you could ask include: What is really difficult? What are you not used to? The schedule? The people? Logistics? The visibility of being seen as you raise your hand? Getting back to a normal sleep schedule? Masking and unmasking?
- Normalize social interactions. Have your child meet up with friends before school or on the weekends to find or reconnect with trusted friends.
- Develop cognitive flexibility. Ask your child, “What’s the worst that could happen? Can you handle that worst-case scenario? What’s the likelihood that the worst will happen?”
- Review general coping strategies such as deep breathing, drawing, journaling, and talking it out. Game plan around these scenarios, so that kids know that if they get stressed or anxious, they have something that they can do to handle it.
- Resist the urge to say, “everything will be fine.” While they are meant well, those statements can come across as dismissive, because they don’t take into account kids’ feelings. Instead, validate your child’s feelings, and talk with your child about what your child has done to deal with these difficult feelings in the past. Praise your child for handling similar situations well before.
What are the most important things for parents to keep in mind?
As hard as it is to hear, your goal as a parent is not to remove or prevent your child’s distress. Instead, a parent’s goal is to help kids manage their uncertainty and help kids push through this uncertainty in a productive way. Help them to feel heard, and offer them a range of coping methods, so they can try things on their own. Help them improve their cognitive flexibility by challenging catastrophic, anxious thoughts.
Talking with your child’s teachers, and having a good rapport with them, can also be helpful. If a child is struggling, it doesn’t mean there is a problem with your parenting style. It’s just that there is something to work on, and your child’s teachers can be valuable sources of insight.
Overall, the best thing parents can do is to prepare your child by talking with them. Recognize that the best-laid plans may not work out, and that you and your child may need to be flexible. If you as a parent are rigid, then it’ll be harder for kids to be flexible on their own.
If you are dealing with feelings of depression, anxiety or chronic stress with your child or adolescent, a mental health professional can help you to develop the tools to help. To learn more about Inova Behavioral Health Services, call 571-623-3500. Learn more about the Inova Inpatient Adolescent Mental Health Unit and the Inova child and adolescent outpatient services at the Inova Kellar Center.