How to Help Manage Your Child’s Back-to-School Anxiety

Published on in Health Tip of the Week

Children gathering outside of school wearing masks The roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccines, improving infection rates and the reopening of society ushered in a renewed sense of safety — just in time for summer. While much of the country celebrated with beach trips and barbeques, some children are actually experiencing increased anxiety as they face playdates, extracurricular activities and the coming school year, during which masks may not be required in some districts.

In a recent op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Katie Lockwood, MD, MEd, attending physician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), reflects on the increasing rates of pediatric anxiety.

“We did such a good job of teaching our children about preventing COVID-19 that measures like social distancing and masking became normal,” she writes. “As pandemic precautions relax, it can be hard for children to re-adjust to this new normal when the pandemic had become their version of normal.”

Children who struggled with anxiety prior to the pandemic may be experiencing an increase in symptoms as precautions relax, but even children with no prior history of anxiety may be hesitant to take off their masks or even visit their friends’ homes.

Fortunately, there are ways that you can help your worrying child through this transition ahead of the new school year. Help your child or teen manage their anxiety with these tips.

Focus on what you can control

During times of uncertainty and stress, it’s important to focus on the things you can control: your family’s behavior and the way you manage your feelings.

“Anxiety wants an answer now,” says Yesenia Marroquin, PhD, clinical psychologist in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at CHOP. “The goal is to tolerate this uncertainty and recognize that are all continuing to get through this together.”

To help your child regain a sense of control over their everyday lives, encourage them to focus on what they can do, as opposed to what they can’t do. According to Dr. Lockwood, this should include “handwashing, staying home when sick and getting vaccinated.”

You may also want to create and follow a daily schedule. It may be helpful to begin practicing upcoming school routines one to two weeks before the start of the school year. Your anxious child will appreciate knowing what to expect each day, and your spontaneous child will learn to plan around must-do activities.

Tips to support your child

Your child’s level of anxiety may shift according to their age and developmental stage. The important thing is to adopt a supportive stance and help manage any associated worries.

You can help your worrying child by:

  • Listening to their fears and validating their feelings. Hold space for your child’s worries, and ensure they feel comfortable expressing themselves to you.
  • Talking through any extreme compulsions your child has – such as repeatedly washing their hands. Help your child understand what they are feeling when they do these activities and how these excessive behaviors are negatively impacting their lives.
  • If you notice your child is spending a lot of time preoccupied with worry – and seeking frequent reassurance from you – it may be helpful to plan "worry time." This is dedicated time (generally 5-10 minutes a day) when your child can express their worries freely, while you validate their distress and express confidence that – together – you will be able to manage whatever comes next. Redirect your child when they want to talk about their worries outside of “worry time.” Try not to have “worry time” right before bed; instead, schedule it before an activity your child enjoys so it's easier to transition from worrying to having fun.

If your child’s anxiety begins to interfere with their ability to function, it’s important that you seek guidance from your pediatrician.

Model healthy coping behaviors

This is still a confusing time, and our kids aren’t the only ones struggling with uncertainty. In order to help your child manage their anxiety, you must first recognize and validate your own worries and fears.

“This isn’t about faking a positive attitude,” says Dr. Marroquin. “This is about letting your kids know that you recognize your worry, and you are caring for your feelings appropriately and focusing on what you can control. While we cannot control what emotions arise within us, we can influence what we do with our emotions, including how intense the emotions become and how much we allow our emotions to drive the bus of our actions.”

When you feel stressed, you can model healthy coping behaviors for your children by participating in a soothing activity, such as drinking a cup of tea or going for a walk. These behaviors will allow your brain to stop ruminating and reset focus on the things you can control.

The bottom line

You and your child may not adapt to this new way of living at the same rate. Dr. Lockwood suggests that gradually exposing your child to smaller social activities — such as events with close family and friends — may help them learn to embrace these experiences over time.

“When your child steps out of their comfort zone,” Dr. Lockwood writes, “praise their efforts, regardless of the outcome.”

Find more timely topics and answers to your frequently asked questions about COVID-19 here.

Read advice for how to support college students in an uncertain academic year (part of CHOP PolicyLab's Back to School series).

Contributors: Katie Lockwood, MD, MEd and Yesenia A. Marroquin, PhD

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