As children go back to school, and as a mother of three girls I can't help but worry about their mental health and well-being. I have found the initial back-to-school transition rather challenging myself, from buying school supplies and uniforms to managing the overload of letters from the school with changing procedures and restrictions. The start of the school year has felt very different for both the girls and me, and I can feel an underlying sense of uncertainty and stress as the weeks have continued.
It is hard to gauge the full impact that the situation is having on children. Not only the mental issues of returning to school after six months - to new a year and a new way of working- but also with the uncertainty of the pandemic still weighing heavily on their minds. There is also the physical impact of early mornings and lack of sleep and suddenly walking around all day.
Each child's experience with lockdown will have been different. For some, it will have mostly been a safe and enjoyable time, but for others, it will have been challenging, stressful and in some cases, traumatic. I see with my own children two that are desperate to return to their friends and one who has become introverted and worried about social interaction now.
Tips for helping your child back into school life:
It's essential to have honest, factual and open conversations with your child about COVID-19 and its implications for returning to school. Tailor the depth and breadth of conversations based on your's child's age and maturity level. Talk them through the need to wear masks and explain as much as you can about how things have changed and why.
You can help children identify their role in staying safe — such as avoiding touching their face, washing their hands or using hand-sanitizer and keeping their distance from others. Give them a sense of control in what they can do themselves rather than focusing on the things that are out of their control.
It's OK for parents to feel uncertain and worried. However, as much as possible, try to be calm and confident when talking about school and use cheerful, positive messages when saying goodbye, and empathy when responding to protests or anxieties. Research suggests that children notice how their parent's feel and pick up on body language, facial expressions and cautious tones of voices. Parents who care for their own well-being and mental health are better able to care for their children's — so be kind to yourself and seek out those you can turn to if you are struggling or troubled by these unprecedented circumstances. While this year's transition back to school is different, we can help children feel optimistic by listening to and validating their worries, teaching them coping strategies and supporting them when they find things difficult in a calm and supportive way.
Some kids will want to come home and just let everything out - you need to be their soundboard if so. Others may need a little encouragement, and you may need to create space for talking in different ways, such as going on a walk together or baking together. There may be less pressure in these circumstances than when sitting face to face. Also ignore the temptation to ask them as soon as they walk through the door how their day was, let them come in and relax a bit first, so they don't go on the defensive.
Ask your child to write three positive things that they did at school each evening. Three things they enjoyed or felt they did well. This will help foster a general attitude of positivity and confidence. Allow them to accept that there are elements of returning to school life that will be difficult but ask them to focus on what they enjoy to help shift their attitude.
It's important to acknowledge children's worries and anxieties, but parents should also motivate their children to focus on the things they might be looking forward to. We need to help our kids to navigate these strange times and understand why things are different and how we all need to play our part. By doing this, we are helping to create resilient kids that can face all sorts of challenges in life, far beyond this pandemic.