Excerpt from an article originally written by Bri DeRosa with The Family Dinner Project


We’ve been talking to a number of experts this summer about all the different facets of transitioning from pandemic life to a more cautiously “normal” routine. Some of what we’ve heard is that it’s not just hard to get back into the swing of things — it actually might bring on some real mental health challenges for parents and kids. What should parents expect as kids prepare to go back to school?

“Some of the challenges won’t come out until you start to prepare. I think the best way to know what to expect is to start to prepare early. Change, for some kids, will be what triggers the anxiety. Start getting back on a schedule, which might be hard if back-to-school is still a few weeks away but try to start to get on some sort of schedule and routine that will mimic the school schedule. Something that will have a fairly consistent bedtime, wake-up time, and so on. All of the things that provide structure and organization to the day will be helpful,” said Dr. Khadijah Watkins, Associate Director of the MGH Clay Center for Healthy Young Minds.

As you’re preparing and getting back on schedule, start having those conversations about going back to school. Listen to what they’re worried about. Is it keeping up with the work? Re-engaging with friends and worries about whether they will fit in or be accepted? Are they worrying about what it will be like to be back in school all day and not with their parents anymore? Anxiety will probably sound a lot like what-ifs.

Pay attention to their patterns. Look for changes in their sleep patterns or eating habits, or changes in their baseline demeanor. Maybe you have a naturally jovial kid who’s suddenly become a moodier kid, or you see a change in their interest in things they are usually interested in. Those are signs you need to look deeper into, and if you have significant concerns, you can reach out to your child’s doctor for help.

I think one of the hard things is knowing how to respond to those what-ifs you mentioned. Sometimes the scenarios kids come up with can sound so unrealistic to parents, or so farfetched, that the automatic reaction is to say something like “Oh, that won’t happen” or “That’s silly, don’t worry about that.” I’m guessing that’s not the best response. What should parents say instead?

It sometimes can be difficult trying to differentiate between what’s normal and what’s over-anxious thinking, especially if you have kids who are already prone to anxiety. You want to validate their thoughts and worries. At the same time, parents need to keep it in perspective for them. There’s so much information out there that they are getting from news, friends, and other adults. Be aware of where their information is coming from, so you can contextualize it. As much as you can, you want to correct misinformation or misconceptions. When kids are left to put together their own information, it’s usually worse than if you help guide them. Maybe you can go online together and research some of their concerns together.

You may feel like the what-ifs are really outlandish, but it’s important to pay attention to your body language. Kids pick up on your cues. It’s okay, as a parent, to have a not-great initial response. You can always back up after saying “that’s ridiculous” and try again. We’re human and we can make mistakes, there’s room to repair and start the conversation over. When you try again, you can say something like “Where did you get that information? What makes you think that? I can see why you’d be worried about this, but let’s back up and think about it.” Understand that the way children’s minds are working, some of the ideas and worries they have might not be so far-fetched. They need us to have the dialogue and help them fact-find in a supportive way that allows them to be part of the problem-solving team.

Kids need to feel they have agency and autonomy and the confidence that they have the tools to come up with answers and solutions themselves. Especially with anxiety, it’s really important that they feel comfortable that they can manage without their parents or even other people or external things and that they are able to rely on themselves to self-soothe. A lot of schools have put additional safety measures into place around lunch, ventilation systems, outdoor learning and activities, to help minimize risk. You can put those things out there and remind kids that things will change, as we’ve seen this year, but here are all the things we’re all doing to work together to create a safe environment. Then ask “What would make you feel safe? What information would make you feel more comfortable going back to school?”

It’s also important to be honest right now that there is still a degree of uncertainty. You might say “We don’t know 100 percent, but I’m communicating with your school, or keeping up with the guidance, or I’m in touch with your doctors. We’re going to work together as a team and do our best to make sure that you’re safe and we’re safe, because we all want to be safe.”

Originally posted by The Family Dinner Project: https://thefamilydinnerproject.org/blog/how-to-return-to-back-to-school-routine/

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