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How to Get Your Kids Mentally & Emotionally Ready to Go Back to School

As much as we are all excited for us to return to “normal” as more people receive their doses (or dose) of the COVD-19 vaccine and schools around the country begin to open, a recent poll is showing that the majority of teens are feeling more anxious than excited about heading to their classrooms in the fall.

One of the primary reasons teens are experiencing anxiety about going back to school, says Dr. Sanam Hafeez, NYC Neuropsychologist Faculty Member at Columbia University, is due to the lack of socialization during the pandemic.

“During quarantine, kids spent every waking moment in their homes and away from the social pressure they typically would face throughout the day,” she says. “Now, teens are fixating on what to wear, who they will sit with at lunch, or if they gained weight during the lockdown. Teenagers did not need to worry about any social aspects while partaking in an online class. These worries are causing teens to feel an immense amount of pressure, anxiety, and even depressive symptoms.”

Ammari Amani Edwards, LMSW at Chamin Ajjan Psychotherapy, says trends around bullying, and a lack of acceptance around minority identity statuses (such as race, poverty, or sexual orientation) are also causes for concern for teens when going back to school. 

These issues are bringing to the surface issues students may not have had to experience so intensely while online learning and quarantining from the comfort of home,” she says. “These students may be experiencing symptoms of social anxiety, generalized anxiety or depression as a result, and need loved ones, friends, and authority figures such as teachers and mentors to provide compassion around their valid and very normal concerns.”

These issues are bringing to the surface issues students may not have had to experience so intensely while online learning and quarantining from the comfort of home.”

It’s essential, says Dr. Hafeez, that parents recognize that going back to school this fall is not just another start of a school year.

“Scholastically and socially kids from preschool through college had to learn and interact with teachers and classmates in a way that nobody had ever experienced before,” she says. “There was no preparation for what they experienced. For some, it was more challenging than others, and the ways in which it challenged kids and teens were not always identical. Some children may have residual PTSD, and others may have become more anxious as a result. Parents need to be extra patient, supportive, in tune with their children’s scholastic and social experiences, sleeping, eating, and other markers that indicate positive or negative mental health.” 

Below, some tips on how you can best help your kid prepare mentally and emotionally to go back to school.

Validate their concerns

“Parents should not push away these concerns by saying, ‘You have nothing to worry about,’ and close the book, so to speak,” says Dr. Hafeez. “It is important to find out what is anxiety-provoking for your child so that you have a dialogue and start to troubleshoot and problem solve with your teen before school starts.”

This way, she says, you can work on coping mechanisms, which might include having a school counselor involved, a tutor, a trusted sports coach, or a parent of a close friend, as an added support system to your child.

“It is also important to reiterate to your teen that they are not alone in their feelings and that many teens put up a ‘brave façade,’ but are feeling the same insecurity and sense of anxiety they are.”

Remind your child that feelings can change

Amani Edwards says it’s important to remind your children that there is typically a six-month adjustment period for major life changes and to “normalize that returning to school is an example of this. Students who adjusted well at the start of the pandemic can be reminded that this adjustment can resolve similarly with a hopeful and determined mindset to overcome their current fears and disappointments.”

She also suggests reminding your child that feelings are like waves they come and go. “Helping the child to remember a time that they overcame difficult emotions may help. Remind them to check in at the six-month mark to track progress and increase mindfulness about their improved moods.” 

Instill confidence 

Instilling confidence in your child could be a great way to help them with their readjustment as they start to feel more like their best selves before the school year begins.

“Remind your child what they are good at and get them back involved in that during the summer months,” suggests Dr. Hafeez. “The pandemic limited normal activities and socialization. If your child is a great tennis player, get them back out on the court. If they excel in painting, have them take a painting class. They need to re-establish their place in the world and a sense of belonging and who they were before the pandemic to get back to being themselves.”

While some kids might be reluctant at first in fear of “not being good at anything anymore,” she recommends allowing your children “to take baby steps back into their hobbies in low-pressure situations at first until they regain their footing.”

Help your child name their triggers

Amani Edwards recommends helping them identify what they’re struggling with and giving them easy tools to help them mark their progress. For anxious children, she suggests helping them learn more about what triggers their anxiety.

“They can then respond to the situation and choose a coping tool to manage intense feelings. Tools could be deep breathing, mood trackers, or practicing mindfulness meditation to help students remain present and non-judgmental in situations that may have caused significant distress in the past.” 

For students experiencing depression, she recommends a worksheet that tracks their activity progress, starting with small activities that take less energy, and then moving to a medium energy activity, and finally working to more challenging activities. “This way students are starting slow, then progressing when they feel they are confident and engaging in activities that are necessary and/or enjoyable.”

Encourage your children to socialize again 

Relating to people IRL feels weird for everyone and can be even more awkward for your child (who probably feels awkward at the best of times). Gently encouraging your children to socialize more will help them regain their confidence and comfort with social engagement. “For preschoolers and grade-schoolers it’s about getting them off the screen, ie Minecraft, video games, phones, and back to playing with friends using their imagination, and re-entry into socialization,” says Dr. Hafeez. “Learning how to share again, being away from parents on a playdate, improving motor skills, increasing attention span, and social maturation in general.”

For high schoolers, she recommends parents encourage them to first seek out activities and people that are within their comfort zone to regain their social “sea legs.”

“And then, parents can gently prod the teenager to do things or engage with people who may be a bit out of their comfort zone. Again, start with things your teen excels at and has success with in the past. You want them to have a positive experience to give them the impetus to get more involved and fully immerse themselves back into their pre-pandemic life.” 

Consider if/when your child should seek outside help, like therapy

According to Dr. Hafeez, if a child is not getting back into the groove after about a month of school and is experiencing mood swings, anxiety, using drugs or alcohol, experiencing changes in appetite, sleep patterns, lack of socialization, apathy, and/or not fulfilling assignments or obligations, this would be the time to seek the help of a therapist.

Adds Amani Edwards: “When the child’s symptoms are creating an inability to work or go to school, if there is increased conflict and difficulty in relationships, increased risk of health issues, if that child has been hospitalized for mental health concerns or is contemplating suicide, it is time to reach out for professional support.”

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