ADVICE: Parent is worried about back-to-school

Be careful about passing on your anxieties to your children.

Maja Begovic 4 minute read August 14, 2020
two kids getting on a school bus wearing masks

Parents everywhere are weighing the risks of back to school. Stock/Getty

Dear Asking For A Friend, 

My husband and I are feeling anxious about sending our kids back to school this fall, but like most parents, we struggled to balance our busy work schedules with online learning. My husband and I have talked openly in front of our nine-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter about the pandemic and now our kids are worried about going back to school this fall. Any advice on what parents can do or say to help relieve some of the stress their kids might be feeling about returning to school? We feel very conflicted about our decision. Is sending them to school in a pandemic even a good idea?

Signed, Feeling Panicked


Dear Feeling Panicked,

Many parents are struggling with back-to-school decisions right now. Things will look quite different this fall, but experts suggest that the benefits of reopening our schools outweigh the risks, so perhaps the transition back to school is less scary than we think.

A lot has changed since March when COVID-19 cases were surging and we knew very little about the virus. Since then, we’ve learned that children account for less than 10 per cent of symptomatic cases and that those who are infected, experience mild symptoms. Children with COVID-19 are rarely hospitalized, which is reassuring to most parents.

With adequate personal protective equipment, proper hand hygiene, and environmental cleaning, schools can safely reopen this fall according to a report by pediatric experts. The report also suggests that returning to school can help “optimize the overall health and welfare of children and youth,” which is especially critical for kids who are more prone to anxiety or who have experienced changes in mood or behaviour as a result of the pandemic. And while every school board must follow the mandated health and safety protocols to ensure it continues its efforts to slow the spread of the virus, in some parts of the country, class size will remain the same. Many parents worry about having 30 kids and a teacher crammed in one room during the school day, but that said, infection rates are dropping right across the country.

The pandemic has had an impact on our mental health, and many people are struggling with stress and anxiety. It’s no different for parents, but your feelings can adversely affect your child’s attitude, resilience and self-esteem.

“Parents who experience anxiety and stress can transmit these symptoms to their child, and both can suffer from feeling unsettled with the idea of going back to school and the changes,” says Mary Zamil, registered psychotherapist at Positive Kids in Toronto.

So what can parents do to help break this cycle and avoid having their kids inherit their fears in a time of pandemic?

Zamil suggests that parents have age-appropriate conversations with their kids using three key techniques.

Acknowledge your child’s feelings

First, parents must acknowledge and validate their kids’ feelings and emotions. The next step is to try to help them understand that negative thoughts and feelings are based on assumptions — not facts — and work with them to identify more positive thoughts. A good example would be coaching your kids into redirecting and replacing fear-based thoughts like, “I might get sick,” with thoughts like, “I’m safe and okay.” Even getting up to use the washroom or getting a drink of water can sometimes be enough to distract the mind and interrupt the flow of negative thoughts. Zamil says that “once the thought processes are altered, then the reaction changes along with the feeling connected to that situation.” Lastly, she suggests parents guide their kids through a few different coping strategies, including, “breathing techniques (five deep breaths in and out), visualization strategies (using five senses and visualizing safe or relaxing space), counting backwards, distracting the mind with a happy memory, and self-reflecting in a daily journal.”

Books to help little kids cope 

There are also books that can help your children focus on what is so great about going to school which can help make worries seem a bit smaller. Zamil recommends: I Am Too Absolutely Small for School by Lauren Child, The Things I Love About School by Trace Moroney The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn, Going to School by Anna Civardi and Maisy Goes to Preschool by Lucy Cousins.

The pandemic is far from over and there are no guarantees. The perpetual uncertainty is part of what makes so many parents uncomfortable and nervous about sending their kids back to school. To help alleviate stress, turn to exercise, positive thinking and practice self-compassion. Like all parents, you’re working your way through this — and right now, that’s all you can do.


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