Connecticut’s parents, students, and educators have all felt the impacts of COVID-19 in recent months and are now concerned about what comes next. For some, the lockdown provided safety and time to be enjoyed with family--despite the universal challenges of online schooling, lack of time with peers, and boredom. For many, the lockdown was very tough, as parents tried to juggle the competing, yet equally important, responsibilities of their jobs and their children’s schoolwork, while also navigating isolation, financial stress, and in many cases illness and job loss.
Most of us have been feeling a very natural mix of emotions since last March, including worry, stress, helplessness and anxiety. Unfortunately, many parents have begun “day drinking” to cope with stress, which sends a worrisome message to children. And some pre-teens and teens have gotten access to their parents’ liquor or medicine cabinets, or have become dependent on the internet as their primary way to spend their days. On a more positive note, many others have taken up yoga, running, art, or other hobbies as healthy past-times that can also be mood-boosters.
Over the summer, the partial reopening has allowed us some return to normalcy. At the same time, it has left children bored and parents concerned about how to balance childcare with work. Teens have started meeting their friends again, which increases the risk of spreading the virus through risky social behaviors such as drinking and sexual activity. Naturally, with schools across Connecticut set to reopen in the next few weeks, many parents are left wondering what this next phase will be like, how long it will last, and how to manage their own and their children’s mental and physical wellbeing. As we prepare our children to head back to school this fall, learning how to manage anxiety effectively is important for us all during this transition.
Why Heading Back to School Can Be Challenging
Although Governor Ned Lamont’s Adapt, Advance, Achieve program provides guidance, local school districts are still continuing to devise safety plans and work out the details of classroom assignments as of the end of August. The last-minute planning, along with the uncertainty about whether schools will be able to remain open if the virus spreads faster, is increasing everyone’s anxiety. We all need to recognize that uncertainty is a challenging feeling, but we can learn to accept it and live with it.
Some particular factors related to going back to school that might affect students include:
- Stress over lifestyle changes, from getting up earlier to managing a daily routine again
- No longer feeling safe outside the house
- Fear of in-school bullying
- Fear of second wave of pandemic
- ‘Normal’ won’t be the same as before COVID-19
- Separation anxiety
- Stress about socializing safely with peers
- Substance misuse
- Fear of missing out on yet another year, including markers such as prom or graduation
Parents may be experiencing the same concerns. In addition, they may be worried about managing the hybrid model of education and its impact on their work schedule, and how to manage their children’s social media and internet usage.
How to Support a Child Worried About Returning to School
It’s important to remember that children and adolescents look for the guidance and support of adults during stressful times. The following 6 tips can help our students feel at ease going back to school.
1. Demonstrate curiosity and listen to their concerns
Ask your children if they have any concerns about what to expect when classes start again. It may help to share your own concerns about your own work life (but don’t make it all about you!)
Prompt with follow-up questions such as:
- What are you looking forward to?
- What do you think will be hardest to adapt to?
- Is anything about starting school again making you nervous?
- How do you feel about remote learning / the hybrid model?
- How prepared do you feel academically for this year?
- What do you think your social life is going to be like?
2. Enforce safety protocols
Whether your children will be learning remotely or returning to school, remind them to continue to observe hygiene and safety measures. Keep monitoring them for COVID-19 symptoms. Reassure them that their physical health is a priority, both for their own sake and the sake of their family and community.
If your children will be physically attending school, remind them that the school has their best interests in mind. Tell them you expect them to obey the school’s rules for practicing safety.
As of August 2020, the recommended COVID-19 Guidelines for Connecticut Schools are to:
- Ensure that students are educated and engaged in the new expectations related to all public health policies and protocols. As part of this requirement, assess the best approach to communicating the information for the age group, and plan to set aside time at the beginning of the school year, as well as frequent reminders, to review the new policies and protocols.
- Familiarize all participants of the standard public health practices used to prevent the spread of diseases. These practices include, but are not limited to:
- − social distancing,
- − frequent hand washing and use of hand sanitizer,
- − use of face coverings that completely cover the nose and mouth,
- − respiratory and cough etiquette, and
- − enhanced cleaning/disinfection of surfaces.
- Provide adequate supplies, including soap, hand sanitizer with at least 60% ethyl alcohol or 70% isopropyl alcohol (for staff and older students who can safely use hand sanitizer), paper towels, tissues, disinfectant wipes, cloth face coverings (as feasible), and no-touch/foot-pedal trash cans.
Another aspect of staying safe is socializing appropriately. Socialization is an important aspect of our lives, promoting a child’s growth and development and protecting our mental wellbeing at any age. After months of social isolation, many of us have begun meeting friends and going out over the summer. These behaviors are likely to increase with school reopening. Be sure to talk regularly with your children or teens about how to socialize safely. Help them strategize about how to handle situations such as:
- Being invited to a friend’s house and finding a large number of people in close quarters
- Being the only person in a friend group wearing a mask
- Being offered a vape or an alcoholic drink at a party
- Maintaining a safe distance if peers are not observing the 6’ rule
Remind them that they can always use you as an excuse to get out of an uncomfortable situation: “my parents would kill me!”
3. Focus on the positives
Although things will be different this school year, there will be many positives, such as increased time with peers, increased time at home, a later school start time in many towns, and new ways of learning. Here are some ways to help our families focus on the positives:
- Share good news stories during family meals
- Give each other positive affirmations via notes on pillows, lunch boxes or mirrors or daily texts
- Create a daily family gratitude practice where everyone shares a positive moment from the day.
Take the opportunity of spending more time at home to plan crafts together, take up hobbies, and create traditions such as games night
4. Create a balanced lifestyle
Some of the most effective ways to cope with stress are free!
- Pay attention to your family’s nutrition. A healthy diet with limited sugar supports mental wellbeing as well as physical health. Too much caffeine can make you nervous and affect your sleep; alcohol is a depressant. Involve your children in planning and preparing meals. You may be surprised at the natural flow of conversation as you cook together!
- Exercise, preferably as a family. Tennis, running, cycling, hiking, and volleyball are just a few examples of socially distanced activities that can get you outside, get that heartbeat up, and provide fun with friends. Even short daily walks are good for your mind and body and provide needed vitamin D. Studies show that exercise is often as beneficial as an anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication.
- Set aside specific time and space for work, and separate time and space for hobbies, games or projects. Limit time spent online for all family members, especially during family meals and before bedtime.
- Get enough sleep. Teens may need even more sleep than children. Turning off all screens for the hour before bedtime helps with deeper sleep.
5. Create virtual supports
For those of us whose children will be remote learning this fall, identify alternatives to the extracurriculars they used to be involved in and the playdates or parties they may not be going to. Set up regular Zoom meals with family or friends. Create weekly online meetups for kids to play games such as scribblio or hold scavenger hunts with their friends. Get creative about finding online alternatives to their usual activities, such as acting out plays online, doing gymnastics along with a youtube video, etc.
For those who need more support, virtual support groups are a great way to receive help and learn stress management tips during times of crisis, especially amid a pandemic. A support group enables access to trained facilitators as well as to peers who can sympathize, while remaining safe at home. Below are some of the support groups available here at Positive Directions:
- COVID-19 Virtual Adult Support Group
- SMART Recovery Friends and Family Support Group
- SMART Young Adults Support Group
For more support groups in Connecticut, visit www.thehubct.org/calendar.
Positive Directions also encourages everyone to let your children and teens know about the free Crisis Text Line, which is available by text 24/7, and to enter its number into their cell phone: 741-741.
Another great resource for young people is Connecticut’s Young Adult Warmline, available from 12pm-9pm 7 days a week at 800-6-HELPNOW. Staffed by trained young people ages 18 to 25 who have experienced personal struggles with their mental health, it offers a listening ear and true peer support.
6. Seek professional help
Finally, make sure to monitor your family--and yourself!--for significant behavior changes, such as mood changes, new eating or sleeping patterns, or withdrawal. Recognize when to seek outside help. When anxiety or depression begins to impact daily life or leads to signs of depression or substance misuse, it’s important to speak with a professional.
Positive Directions is always available to provide counseling to children, teens and adults. We provide convenient online therapy to address mental health, substance misuse, and problem gambling issues, and we will soon begin offering in-person counseling once again. We also offer access to psychiatric care for those requiring medication.
Other ways to get help:
- At school, your children can get started with help from the school social worker. Some middle and high schools have School-Based Health Centers (SBHCs) which are free health clinics that can provide physicals, healthcare, and mental health support to students. Here in Fairfield County, CT, a number of schools have trained Teen Talk counselors provided by Kids in Crisis.
- At work, your company may have an Employee Assistance Program that is free and confidential--a good way to start navigating your options.