About 4.4 million children have been diagnosed with anxiety, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and anxiety symptoms have increased since the COVID-19 crisis began. The start of the school year has exacerbated the anxiety level for many, as children are separating from their families for the first time in six months and finding that their school has a markedly different look and feel, with all the masked faces and new social distancing and handwashing routines. Kids may worry (with good reason) about whether it’s safe for them to be at school. Those kids who are attending school virtually may have increased anxiety, as well, as they worry whether life as they knew it will ever return. Here are some ways to help kids cope with anxiety as they adjust to the current normal.
Know the symptoms of anxiety
Anxiety is the most common emotional problem in children, according to the Child Mind Institute. Different types of anxiety include phobias; separation anxiety, where children are afraid to separate from their parents or caregivers; social anxiety, which can make kids afraid to go to school or other places where there are people; or general anxiety, where kids fret about the future or bad things happening. Kids can develop debilitating fears of everything from dogs or bees to germs or their parents dying. For some kids, these fears only developed after the COVID crisis started, while in other kids, the pandemic aggravated their fears. Common anxiety symptoms include moodiness and irritability, tantrums and meltdowns, trouble sleeping, physical symptoms like stomachaches and headaches, and clinginess. Kids who are anxious may also frequently seek reassurance, asking questions like, “Are you still going to be here when I get home from school?”
Listen to your child’s concerns
If your child kid expresses anxiety about going to school, listen to him. According to the Child Mild Institute, listening to and acknowledging
children’s feelings will help them feel more secure. If your child is afraid of catching the virus, don’t dismiss his fears by telling him, “There’s nothing to worry about.” Rather, tell your child that you understand his fears, while also reassuring him that the school has been making preparations for months to keep everyone safe. Talk to your child about how he can also help keep himself safe by following the rules, such as washing his hands and maintaining a safe distance from others as directed by his teachers.
Check your own fears
Many parents are nervous about the unprecedented and monumental task that schools face in reopening in the time of a pandemic. But if you’re freaking out about your child going to school, realize that you may be passing your anxiety on to her. When reassuring your child about her own fears, it’s important to remain calm. Answer her questions about safety and the virus calmly, and if she asks questions you cannot answer, tell her that you will find out the answer for her. Avoid asking your child questions like “Were you nervous at school today?” because you may be giving her the subtle message that there is something to worry about. Rather, get her talking about her day and her feelings by starting out with less direct queries, like where she sat at lunchtime or what she did at recess.
Establish a routine
As the school year begins, there’s so much uncertainty. No one knows if a second wave will come and shut schools down. With so much that we can’t control, it’s helpful to control what we can. Getting your children into a predictable routine can help reduce their anxiety. Whether kids are going to school in-person or at home, try to keep their schedule consistent, with meals and bedtimes the same every day. For kids who spend all or some of their school days at home, have a dedicated work area for the school day. Be sure to work exercise and play time into the routine, along with time for homework and chores.
If your child needs more help
Some degree of heightened anxiety is to be expected during these anxious times. But if your child has severe meltdowns or refuses to go to school or is unable to stay at school, and it goes on for more than a couple of weeks, it may be time to seek professional help. Many therapies and medications are effective at treating anxiety, and in addition to working with your child, therapists can advise parents and teachers on ways to further help your child. For more information visit the Child Mind Institute at childmind.org.