As we enter the 18th month of the pandemic, and with a new school year about to start, many parents are concerned about how their children are doing in facing the return to school this fall. Is it increasing children’s anxieties and fears? How can that be determined? And what steps should parents take if they feel there might be problems beyond the normal back to school jitters.
The first thing to realize is that the looming start of school is affecting children differently. Some are eager to get back to school. They want to get back together with friends, enjoy the routine, or welcome the stability of the school environment. Others may have begun to feel more secure at home, a feeling that, for some, was increased by the uncertainties around school schedules last year and the ongoing unpredictability of a pandemic that does not seem to end.
Open communication is the best way for parents to assess how their children are doing. While parents should not try to be mental health workers, real—and frequent—conversations with children and adolescents can help allay fears, correct misunderstandings, and indicate if there are issues which might require outside help.
Parents should remember that some nervousness is natural with the start of a school year and in the face of the changing news about the virus. That said, if children or adolescents exhibit high levels of stress over time, or complain of headaches, bellyaches, or other symptoms without any apparent cause, parents should take note.
What should parents do if anxieties are not effectively addressed through parental conversation?
Often the best next step is a visit to the family doctor or pediatrician. Children often find these setting safe places to open up.
If parents want to talk with a professional mental health counselor who is trained, licensed and ready to listen, there are many options, including the comprehensive range of services offered through MHA’s BestLife Emotional Health and Wellness Center at 844-MHA-WELL.
Parents can also find many online resources to help them make the best decisions for their children. One of these resources, the Handhold website at handholdma.org, was recently created by the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health to help parents look after the mental well-being of their children.
In addition to all those notebooks, pens, pencils and other back-to-school supplies, let’s remember to include healthy conversations about how our children are feeling emotionally.
Sara Kendall, MSW, LICSW, is vice president of clinical operations at MHA.