How To Help Your Child Adjust To Going Back to School During the Pandemic

Helpful tips from a pediatric psychologist
back to school, COVID-19, coronavirus, tantrums, teens in school, school anxiety

Kids across the country are returning to school. (Can you hear the collective sigh of relief from parents everywhere?) Isn’t it great to know that your child can be with their friends again and have a little normalcy during the pandemic? And you can feel relieved because you no longer have to teach common core math or listen to lessons in between conference calls. What a dream!

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Unfortunately, some kids might be a little apprehensive about going back to school. For them, home meant a safe haven from a number of stressors that they faced at school. On the other hand, kids who are excited about returning to the classroom will now have to adjust to learning with COVID-19 protocols in place. Either way, the transition back to school might be a little stressful for your child.

So, what can you do if you notice that your child is having a rough time with this change? Pediatric psychologist Vanessa Jensen, PsyD, ABPP offers some sage advice to help make the process easier.

Why good change can also be stressful

“In general, going back to school is just a big change. It’s a whole new setting especially for kids who are going from elementary school to middle school or middle school to high school. It’s a whole new world, and all of the sudden, they’re expected to know what they’re doing. It’s a huge shift from being their little space at home to now being in this world of back to school,” says Dr. Jensen.

How to recognize when your child is having a tough time

She adds that if you’re not sure if your child is having a hard time with the transition back to school, think about how they normally act when they’re stressed and look for those behaviors. For example, if your child gets headaches or stomach aches when they’re anxious, you’ll know that school is stressing them out should they start having them more frequently.

“We have a tendency to go towards certain behaviors when we’re stressed. My suggestion is for parents to think about what their child does when they get stressed in a new situation. Think about the behaviors that they usually revert to whether it’s hiding in the background of a small group or acting out and trying to be the funny kid. Once you recognize what they tend to do under stress, that’s probably what you’re going to see as they enter into a new situation.”

Helping teens make the adjustment

We remember our teenage years. Some of us were wild and loud. Some of us were shy and quiet. But regardless of our personalities, most of us probably kept our crushes, craziness and challenging times under wraps. Dr. Jensen advises us to keep that in mind when it comes to teens. While it’s natural to want to know every single thing that’s going on in your teen’s life, prying or being overbearing will only make things worse.

“If your child has been able to handle things in general, give them some space. But if you’re worried, you can always say things like, ‘You seem a little stressed. You know, I’m around,’ or ‘Have you talked to your friends?’ And if they have talked to their friends, you can always follow up with ‘Well if you want to talk to me, I’m here.’”

She calls this her “raindrop theory.” Basically, this is dropping little hints that your child can reach out to you should things become unbearable.

Dr. Jensen explains.

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“You just put the little raindrops out there by saying ‘You know, I’m around,’ or ‘I’m going to be in my study if you want to talk.’ You put those little hints out there and kids will reach out when they feel comfortable,” she says.

Reassure them gently and gradually. “If you overwhelm your child with questions, (and I compare this to throwing buckets of water on them), they’re going to think, ‘Whoa, I’m not going there.’ So, give them space. They know you’re there. Just keep reassuring them that if things get bad, you’ll be there for them.”

Now, we all know that some kids think their parents will never be able to relate to their teenage struggles. (Do they think parents arrived on Earth in their ultimate adulting form?) In cases like these, a “cool” aunt or uncle can help. Dr. Jensen says that you can sprinkle the raindrops in the direction of another adult that you and your teen trust so they are encouraged to reach out to someone if they’re having a rough time.

“Give them some room and let the raindrops flow. Let your teen know that you’re available to talk but if they’re not comfortable with you for whatever reason, make sure they do have someone to talk to. You could say, ‘Aunt Susan is a good person to talk to,’ or ‘Uncle John asks about you all of the time.’ This can create little trails to other people when your child is kind of quiet with you.”

How to help smaller children adjust to changes

It’s hard for little kids to express big emotions — and it’s hard for parents to deal with the tantrums, especially if hitting, kicking, wailing and flailing are involved. Dr. Jensen says with younger children, it’s good to establish some core basics regarding behavior.

Some things are OK and some things are not OK in terms of behavior. Let your child know that it’s OK to be upset. It’s OK to feel scared. But it’s not OK to hit or kick.

“Physical harm is not OK, anytime,” Dr. Jensen says. She suggests encouraging your child to talk about their feelings when they’re mad. Ask them what they’re mad about or explain how they can tell you or any adult in the house when they are upset.

“You want to make it clear that they should always keep their hands to themselves. That’s a rule they had when they were in school and that’s still the rule. Make sure your child is clear about what is OK and what is not OK when it comes to behavior.”

How to deal with rebellion against COVID-19 safety rules

You’ve been doing everything you can to keep those under your roof safe for well over a year. Your child has been on board for the most part. But one thing is inevitable. They’re going to have friends who are still living in 2019 — no masks, no social distancing and no regard for COVID-19 whatsoever. What do you do if your child starts challenging the rules?

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Dr. Jensen suggests helping them understand that staying safe is not just about them, but it’s also about all the other people who they care about.

“Talk you your child about what you believe and where the family as a whole stands. Don’t just talk about the risks to them. Talk about the risks of spreading COVID-19 to those around you.”

“You could say something like ‘You know it’s important to our family to stay safe for all kinds of reasons, but more importantly, you have grandma to think about, your dad and your sister.’ For teens and tweens, it comes down to helping them realize that right now is not the time to just focus on themselves. This is difficult because these age groups can be self-focused. They also can be easily influenced by their peers. But again, you want to encourage them to make the best choices for themselves and your family, especially when you’re not around,” she says.

And if the going gets tough, get help

Raising kids during a pandemic hasn’t been easy on anyone. When parents try to push through the tough times or troubleshoot everything on their own, the process can be even more challenging — and draining. Instead of going it alone, Dr. Jensen advises reaching out to the people in your child’s orbit. This includes teachers, coaches, their pediatrician and even the school counselor. She also recommends taking care of yourself first and foremost.

“You’re not going to be any good to your kids if you aren’t taking care of yourself, and you’re the biggest role model your kids have. We all think that kids look to their peers for role models, but they do rely on their parents for the big things. So, the best role model you can be is the person who takes care of themselves and then takes care of their kids,” she says.

If you have questions about how your child is doing, Dr. Jensen suggests talking to their teachers, coaches, scout leader and other important people in their life. Ask what they are seeing. Then, talk to your child.

“If things are beyond your control, reach out to your pediatrician’s office for referrals. Your child’s guidance counselor can also make referrals if you need more help.”

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