A empty classroom is pictured at Eric Hamber Secondary school in Vancouver, B.C. Monday, March 23, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

A empty classroom is pictured at Eric Hamber Secondary school in Vancouver, B.C. Monday, March 23, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

How to help your child cope with the transition back to school during COVID-19

Experts say listening and validating your child’s fears is key

Authors: Jessica Cooke, PhD Student, Department of Psychology, University of Calgary; Nicole Racine, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Psychology, University of Calgary, and Sheri Madigan, Associate Professor, Canada Research Chair in Determinants of Child Development, Owerko Centre at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, University of Calgary

Every fall, parents are tasked with managing back-to-school transitions. Usually this means shopping for or gathering school supplies or seasonal clothes, registering for activities or helping children manage back-to-school excitement or worries. But with COVID-19, the start of this school year feels very different.

Our research shows that due to COVID-19, parents and children are experiencing greater levels of anxiety and stress. With contentious and sometimes shifting information about the process, these feelings of uncertainty may increase.

Parents and children may feel nervous about contracting and spreading COVID-19 at school, frustrated by vague reopening plans and skeptical of whether children are able to follow social-distancing and mask protocols.

While levels of anxiety and stress may be high, parents play an influential role in helping children cope, encouraging a positive back-to-school transition and helping to reduce children’s anxiety and worries.

Have honest and open discussions

In psychology, we use the phrase, “what you resist, persists” to describe how avoiding important discussions can actually lead to more persistent feelings of anxiety in children.

It’s important 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 child’s age and maturity level.

For example, with a younger child in grades 1 to 3, you could spend some time talking about what might look different this year. Their class size may be smaller and teachers and educators may be wearing masks. Extra-curricular activities or regular school activities (such as some forms of music) might be cancelled.

For older children, you could ask if there are specific things they are worried or concerned about, and talk these through with them.

You can help children and youth 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. Use coping-focused language that emphasizes the active role that children, youth and adults are taking to make sure things go well (following instructions, engaging in good hygiene), rather than focusing on things that are out of their control (like if a student gets COVID-19).

Name fears to tame fears

As child clinicians, we often encourage parents to use the “name-it-to-tame-it” strategy. First, parents can help their child identify their concerns by asking them what they’re worried about. Then, parents can help their child “name” the worry or concern by labelling it. For example, younger children might name their fear the Worry Monster. Simply labelling the emotion as anxiety can be helpful for older children and teenagers.

Naming the worry often helps tame the fear by helping children build understanding about what they’re feeling. It also gives parents and children a common emotion language that can be used in future discussions, and provides an opportunity for parents to provide emotional support and coping strategies. These strategies include deep breathing and using coping-focused language like: “I feel better when I talk about my worries.”

Children often want reassurance their fears won’t come true. It may be tempting for parents to say “Everything will be OK!” or “No one will get sick!” But such words can prevent children from facing their fears and developing problem-solving and coping skills. They can also prevent children from taking COVID-19 preventative measures (like social distancing) as they may perceive the risk to be low or non-existent.

Acknowledge and support your child in the discomfort that there are some things that may be out of our control, and that it’s best to focus on what we can control.

READ MORE: From masks to cohorting, a guide to back-to-school rules across the country

READ MORE: Teachers to get 2 extra days to prepare for students’ return, now set for Sept. 10

Listen, validate, help to problem-solve

When your child expresses (or demonstrates) they’re struggling, start by listening carefully to their concern. Put devices away, so you can provide undivided attention. Then, try validating your child’s emotion by making a caring statement that reflects what they just said, such as: “I can understand why you feel worried about returning to school, especially when there are so many changes happening because of COVID-19.” Identifying reasons why your child might be feeling worried or anxious will make them feel understood.

Help your child face their fears by promoting problem-solving. Together, identify a few possible solutions and then help them identify which solution seems best. You can discuss different options or role-play solutions to help your child build confidence. Encourage your child to try out the solution in real life and discuss whether or not it worked. If not, try picking a different solution to test!

Focus on things going well

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. Children are likely excited to see friends, peers or teachers in person. They may positively anticipate a daily school routine and take pride in their role as a student or in minimizing COVID-related risks.

Before school starts, you can ask, “What are you looking forward to on your first day of school?” or “What have you missed about school?” Once school starts, you can ask: “What was the best thing that happened today?”

READ MORE: B.C. school staff, older students required to wear masks in ‘high traffic areas’

Build a predictable routine

Usually, things we can control makes us feel safe because they are predictable, while things that fall out of our control can lead to feelings of anxiety because they are unpredictable.

One way parents can help children build feelings of safety and security during COVID-19 is by creating a predictable daily routine, beginning with consistent times for meals, waking up and going to bed.

Before or after school, engage your child in planned, shared activities like making breakfast, reading together or going to the park.

Model calm behaviour

It’s OK for parents to feel uncertain and worried. However, as much as possible, try to model calm and confident attitudes about returning to school for your child and use cheerful, positive messages when saying goodbye, and empathy when responding to tantrums, protests or crying.

Research suggests that children notice how their parents feel and pick up on subtle cues, such as scared facial expressions or cautious tones of voice.

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 when you are struggling or troubled by these unprecedented circumstances. You can also seek mental health services.

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, reviewing safety protocols and supporting them when they find things difficult. Ultimately, our kids need us to lead the way for a successful back-to-school transition and to develop the lifelong skills they need for navigating challenges.

___

Jessica Cooke, PhD Student, Department of Psychology, University of Calgary; Nicole Racine, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Psychology, University of Calgary, and Sheri Madigan, Associate Professor, Canada Research Chair in Determinants of Child Development,, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

CoronavirusSchools

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta premier Jason Kenney declared a public health state of emergency Tuesday and sweeping new measures as COVID-19 cases in the province continue to rise. (photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Kenney declares state of public health emergency as COVID-19 cases rise

High schools shift to online learning, businesses face new restrictions

Children and their families enjoy the light display at Centennial Park in 2019. (File photo)
Town anounces expanded light display and new Christmas Light Tour

The Town of Ponoka will flip the switch on an expanded Christmas… Continue reading

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, announced the province surpasses one million COVID-19 tests Friday. (Photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
COVID-19: Central zone active cases up by 100 in last 24 hours

Most central Alberta communities under province’s enhanced measures list

file photo
Wetaskiwin, Maskwacis RCMP search warrant seize drugs; numerous charges laid

39-year-old Wetaskiwin man, Wayne Wiebe charged with 21 criminal code offences.

.
Alberta confirmed more than 1,500 COVID-19 cases Sunday

Central zone active cases slightly up

Kyle Charles poses for a photo in Edmonton on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. Marvel Entertainment, the biggest comic book publisher in the world, hired the 34-year-old First Nations illustrator as one of the artists involved in Marvel Voice: Indigenous Voices #1 in August. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
VIDEO: Indigenous illustrator of new Marvel comic hopes Aboriginal women feel inspired

Kyle Charles says Indigenous women around the world have reached out

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speak to the media about the COVID-19 virus outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s inability to manufacture vaccines in-house will delay distribution: Trudeau

First doses of COVID-19 vaccine expected in first few months of 2021, prime minister says

This undated photo issued by the University of Oxford shows of vial of coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, in Oxford, England. Pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca said Monday Nov. 23, 2020, that late-stage trials showed its coronavirus vaccine was up to 90% effective, giving public health officials hope they may soon have access to a vaccine that is cheaper and easier to distribute than some of its rivals. (University of Oxford/John Cairns via AP)
VIDEO: How do the leading COVID vaccines differ? And what does that mean for Canada?

All three of the drug companies are incorporating novel techniques in developing their vaccines

Ilaria Rubino is shown in this undated handout image at University of Alberta. Alberta researcher Rubino has developed technology allowing mostly salt to kill pathogens in COVID-19 droplets as they land on a mask. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-University of Alberta
Alberta researcher gets award for COVID-19 mask innovation

The salt-coated mask is expected to be available commercially next year after regulatory approval.

Russ and Luanne Carl are sharing about their experiences of fighting COVID-19 this past summer. (Photo submitted)
Stettler couple opens up about COVID-19 battle

Luanne and Russ Carl urge others to bolster personal safety measures amidst ongoing pandemic

This 2019 photo provided by The ALS Association shows Pat Quinn. Quinn, a co-founder of the viral ice bucket challenge, died Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020, at the age of 37. (Scott Kauffman/The ALS Association via AP)
Co-founder of viral ALS Ice Bucket Challenge dies at 37

Pat Quinn was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, in 2013

Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada David Lametti speaks with the media following party caucus in Ottawa, Tuesday, January 28, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Exclusion of mental health as grounds for assisted death is likely temporary: Lametti

Senators also suggested the exclusion renders the bill unconstitutional

Claudio Mastronardi, Toronto branch manager at Carmichael Engineering, is photographed at the company’s offices in Mississauga, Ont., Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. As indoor air quality becomes a major concern in places of business, HVAC companies are struggling to keep up with demand for high quality filtration systems. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young
Business is booming for HVAC companies as commercial buildings see pandemic upgrades

‘The demand right now is very high. People are putting their health and safety ahead of cost’

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speak to the media about the COVID-19 virus outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Long-awaited federal rent subsidy program for businesses hurt by COVID-19 opens today

The new program will cover up to 65 per cent of rent or commercial mortgage interest

Most Read