Back-to-school season is usually a time of mixed emotions—sadness or anger that the summer is over, excitement to see friends and teachers after months away, worry about new classes or making new friends, and the pleasure of choosing new school supplies. But come this September, those typical emotions will be heightened like never before.
As a new school year approaches with uncertainty still in the air, questions are bound to arise. Are we physically safe? What precautions will be taken? What’s the school’s plan if there’s an outbreak? Is my family comfortable with that, or will we create our own plan? “Part of the struggle of COVID is living with ambiguity,” says Dr. Fred Bemak, professor emeritus of counseling at George Mason University. “That’s a particularly American cultural issue—we look for certainty. How do we help children live with this uncertainty?”
With information and coronavirus statistics evolving every day, it’s impossible to know what things are going to look like in September. Still, local school officials are hoping for the best.
Lucy Caldwell, spokesperson for Fairfax County Public Schools, says the school system’s goal is to be open to all students for full-time, in-person instruction, while continuing to offer a virtual option for students and families who prefer that. “Many of our parents would like to return to five days a week of school,” says Caldwell. “They have expressed they would like events to get ‘back to normal,’ and they urge FCPS schools to have in-person graduations and events for their seniors. Others also indicate they simply want a choice. We are working to accomplish all of these things.”
But after more than a year of remote learning, anxiety about returning to school is inevitable. We spoke to local mental health experts to help parents and guardians prepare children for the moment.
Where to start
There’s no time like the present to begin talking to your kids about the prospect of returning to school and the potentially confusing, conflicting feelings they might be having about it. Start now, and revisit the conversation over the summer, especially as things change.
But let’s back up. “I don’t assume all parents have the skills to talk to their children,” says Bemak. “Parents struggle as well. Don’t assume everyone can sit down and talk. Not all homes are constructed that way.” Parents need to get support, he says, and there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. Parent support groups can be critical to help caretakers figure out how to address their families’ concerns. “This is not a time to pretend you don’t have feelings about this,” says Esther Boykin, a family therapist and CEO of Group Therapy Associates in Haymarket.
Lay the groundwork by making sure your lines of communication are open, says Dr. Alfiee Breland-Noble, a psychologist and founder of the AAKOMA Project in Arlington. Listening is essential. “If you can get the kids to open up, you can get a lot of insights,” says Breland-Noble. “They understand emotions. They understand what they’re feeling.”
6 things to keep in mind
Many of the fundamental guidelines are the same, especially for older children and teens, with some adjustments according to age. This includes how much the child gets to be part of the decision-making process if a family has the choice of whether to return to in-person learning or stick with virtual.
Children’s feelings must be considered, certainly, but elementary- and junior-high-aged children should not be treated as collaborators. “It helps them feel safer that they can count on you to make the best decisions,” says Boykin. “You need to let them know, ‘We hear you, we are taking your feelings into consideration, but we are responsible for making sure your life is OK.’”
Understand your child’s level of tolerance.
Communication, especially within families, is not a one-size-fits-all situation. Breland-Noble suggests having a regular time to connect, with the frequency depending on what the child will be receptive to and how much interaction they’ll be comfortable with. “Some kids like being alone,” she says. “Some kids like a lot of engagement; some kids are chatty; some kids are quiet. So it’s really about first gauging who your child is.”
Be authentic and honest.
Kids can sense when you’re not being straight with them, says Breland-Noble. “They want authentic engagement, so you have to know yourself and know your kid,” she says. Bemak agrees. “You can’t take away the uncertainty, and you can’t disguise it,” he says. “It’s very important to have honesty about that. What parents can offer is consistency, structure, and certainty about the family.”
Avoid questions with one-word answers.
“How was your day?” can easily merit a grunted “Fine.” End of conversation. “Ask open-ended questions that force the other person to respond,” says Breland-Noble. For instance: Tell me something you learned today. What happened today that you liked? What’s something that really got on your nerves?
Get on schedule.
For any families who haven’t been doing so, Boykin suggests reintroducing a regular school-day schedule to gets kids accustomed to a sense of structure they might have been missing.
“Kids are always watching—even when we think they’re not—how well we as parents are modeling our ability to manage our emotions and our behaviors,” says Breland-Noble.
Adapting your approach to different ages
Preschool to Lower Elementary School
Biggest concerns: For the youngest students, separation anxiety after a year at home and away from friends is going to be a paramount issue. Boykin recommends keeping an eye out for regressive behaviors, such as thumb-sucking or clinging.
How to address them: “Kids might need more reassurance or more closeness,” says Boykin. “You can monitor that and create a structure for more one-on-one time while maintaining some boundaries.” For example, a young child might require more cuddling or an extra story at bedtime, but don’t let them start sleeping in your bed every night.
Upper Elementary School to Middle School/Junior High
Biggest concerns: One common struggle for older children and preteens is managing conflicting emotions—feeling isolated versus being concerned about their safety. “We have to create a space for kids to talk about what they feel, even if it is in conflict with what you as a parent think is most important,” says Boykin. Consider how dominant technology is among youth, says Bemak. “They have been losing the ability to socially interact in healthy ways,” he says. “COVID has tremendously accentuated that. Having youth come back to school with fewer social skills, handling social encounters is going to be very important”
How to address them: Resist the temptation to problem-solve. “Middle schoolers think their parents don’t know a lot—I say that only half-facetiously,” says Breland-Noble. “This is the period in life when kids are trying to establish their own identities connected to us, but separate and distinct from us.” Instead of trying to fix a problem, she suggests opening the door for more conversation if the child wants it by saying things like, “Is that something you think we should talk about more so I can help you with that?” or offering empathy, such as: “I’m so sorry. That kind of stuff used to frustrate me, too, when I was your age. Any time you want to talk to me about it, I’m here.” Says Breland-Noble, “It might be that all a kid needs to know is that you care.”
Biggest concerns: For high schoolers, who are in a time of “breaking out” and gaining a sense of independence, the pandemic has delayed certain milestones, like getting a driver’s license.
Likewise, the economic effects of coronavirus are having an impact on teenagers, whether it’s finding a job or having a family member who’s an essential worker. “When a parent serves as an essential worker, the whole family serves,” says Breland-Noble.
Teenagers have also been contending with life not just in a pandemic, but also at a time of uprising. Breland-Noble has treated families with teens who spent weeks watching Black Lives Matter events, helping parents navigate the struggle of whether to permit their children to attend protests, or to do so as a family, because they felt strongly about the cause but were also wrestling with coronavirus concerns. “There are so many layers—in terms of dealing with the pandemic, in terms of social justice and social issues—in addition to the day-to-day of being a 14- to 18-year-old,” she says.
How to address them: With older children, it’s not so much about what you say as what you allow them to say, as well as what you do. “Make enough space in your schedule and your life to be sure your kid feels like they can talk to you,” says Boykin.
Look at the behavior you’re modeling and how you’re coping. Are you fixated on the news day and night? Are you ranting about political figures? Or are you practicing mindfulness? “It’s not just the words and the conversation, it’s also what behaviors they see us engage in,” says Breland-Noble. “Then they interpret that in their own ways and develop ideas about how they need to be managing their own lives.”
Biggest concerns: Students who are not only returning to school but who are moving from elementary school to junior high or middle school to high school may experience some anger or grief for the transitional year they missed out on, says Boykin. Then there’s the extra anxiety that can come with transitioning into a new environment with new people and new structure.
How to address them: She advises asking questions like, “This is a lot of transition—how are you feeling?” or, “If I were in your position, I’d be feeling worried. Is that what you feel?” as well as looking out for behavioral changes that go beyond the normal expectations of puberty.
For students who essentially missed their senior year, the transition from high school to college will be more fraught than usual. According to a 2020 EdSurge article, gap years are growing in popularity. Several schools, including the University of Virginia, offer bridge-year programs, which allow students to delay matriculation but still engage in some structured activity, like a service year.
“A lot of kids are scrambling for some sense of normalcy,” says Breland-Noble. “And so that normalcy is going to come from that bridge year just to give themselves a breather.”
While Caldwell says some parents have expressed concerns about students’ ability to follow health and safety protocols like mask-wearing and social distancing, FCPS has been proactive, working to create a safe environment in anticipation of students’ return to school. The school system has deployed safety teams to monitor virus mitigation strategies and has created a training and education site, Stop the Spread. “We feel that many of our students benefit most from in-person instruction, and we have prepared detailed plans to help bring our students back in safe, measured groups,” says Caldwell. In the event of a COVID outbreak, she says, FCPS will make plans to revert to virtual learning, and that option will remain available for families who prefer it.
As the new school year gets closer, families have continued conversations, and plans change—or don’t—we must tread with care, says Bemak. “We’re at such a vulnerable and critical moment with this transition back to schools,” he says. “COVID has created trauma; it’s created crises; it’s created struggles for families. We’re at a touchy moment coming back into schools, and it’s extremely important we do it right. We need to bring children out of this experience in a very healthy and supportive way.”
When your student is happier at home
For young people who struggle with social skills, or who have perhaps been victims of bullying, the time away from in-person schooling has been helpful, and they might have extra anxiety about the prospect of returning to school. “Some kids don’t want to go back because school prior to this hasn’t been a great experience,” says Boykin.
But Breland-Noble is concerned that even if children are thriving at home, they’re missing out on learning how to contend with challenging situations. In typical times, she practices cognitive behavioral therapy with children who have social anxiety, engaging in what she calls “exposures”—that is, gradually accustoming them to challenging stimuli in a controlled manner. That can include visualization, discussion, and practicing social interactions, such as asking someone for the time.
“My worry from a developmental perspective is because you are not asked to be in those situations, you don’t have the opportunity to develop that muscle, so to speak,” says Breland-Noble. “So all we’ve done is sort of delay the inevitable—at some point, those issues are going to have to be worked through.”
How COVID-19 is affecting kids’ mental health
Life in the time of coronavirus has been hard on children, and it has taken a toll on their mental health.
In a May 2020 Gallup poll, 29 percent of parents surveyed said they already considered their children’s emotional or mental health damaged due to COVID restrictions like school closings and social distancing. Another 14 percent indicated their children were “approaching their limits.”
Without the ability to participate in regular activities and social interactions, the “normal processes and development that kids go through at the middle school age are slowed,” says Breland-Noble. “All of those changes to the normal routine weigh on kids and contribute to things like depression.”
Even if no problems are being diagnosed, kids are facing a lot of adjustment issues, says Bemak. “We’re talking about a whole generation of students who will have social deprivation.”
Experts say parents need to look at traits that might be construed as “typically adolescent,” such as irritability, nervousness, or being withdrawn, in a different context than they would have before COVID was a household term. Don’t be too quick to write them off as mere growing pains.
“We need to look at the new configuration,” says Bemak. “It’s a new depression; it’s a new anxiety. We have to attend to it differently. We have to understand that being socially isolated now is different than it was a year-plus ago.” Plus, says Breland-Noble, not all children feel comfortable at home. “I think about queer kids whose [sense of identity] is just emerging, who are hearing negative things about people who share their identity. Or some kids are feeling isolated in the home for other reasons. So they’ve been stuck in the home, and that isolation and negative stimuli has been weighing on them.”
And as most schooling and social interaction transitioned to the distanced variety, Breland-Noble has become especially concerned for low-income families who don’t have access to technology and a reliable internet connection. “I’ve heard people talk about kids having to do their homework on their cellphones because there’s no computer in the house,” she says.
But perhaps under the heading of “misery loves company,” even virtual company, Breland-Noble, who has two teenage kids of her own, sees young people bonding over the weirdness of it all. “There’s some camaraderie,” she says. “They’re all telling very similar stories about the challenges [they’re facing]. So I think there’s something about not being alone in the struggle, even if the struggles are slightly different. Because the struggle of being a kid during coronavirus in 2021 is universal.”