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

Vases of red roses will be placed in remembrance at several locations in Trail on Monday. Photo: Jamie Street
Trail bridge goes red on Sunday to honour national remembrance

Every night in Canada over 3,400 women and their children are in shelters trying to escape violence

Interior Health says Salmo’s COVID-19 cases have been contained. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Interior Health: Salmo’s COVID-19 cases are contained

Every person who tested positive has recovered

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
81 new cases of COVID-19 detected in Interior Health Friday

One additional staff member at Kelowna long-term care home tests positive, no new deaths

Masks are mandatory indoors in all B.C. businesses. Photo: Black Press file
Think about the common good: wear a mask

Opinion by Trail Times columnist Louise McEwan

A pedestrian looks over a vigil set up in Nelson on Friday to mark National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, which is held Dec. 6 to commemorate the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre that killed 14 women and injured 10 others. Photo: Tyler Harper
Demand for safe space increases in the fall at Nelson’s transition house

The eight-bed service for women and children fleeing domestic violence has been full since Oct. 1

A snow moon rises over Mt. Cheam in Chilliwack on Feb. 8, 2020. Friday, Dec. 11, 2020 is Mountain Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of Dec. 6 to 12

Mountain Day, Dewey Decimal System Day and Lard Day are all coming up this week

Demonstrators, organized by the Public Fishery Alliance, outside the downtown Vancouver offices of Fisheries and Oceans Canada July 6 demand the marking of all hatchery chinook to allow for a sustainable public fishery while wild stocks recover. (Public Fishery Alliance Facebook photo)
Angry B.C. anglers see petition tabled in House of Commons

Salmon fishers demand better access to the healthy stocks in the public fishery

(Hotel Zed/Flytographer)
B.C. hotel grants couple 18 years of free stays after making baby on Valentines Day

Hotel Zed has announced a Kelowna couple has received free Valentines Day stays for next 18 years

Farmers raise slogans during a protest on a highway at the Delhi-Haryana state border, India, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rejected the diplomatic scolding Canada’s envoy to India received on Friday for his recent comments in support of protesting Indian farmers. Tens of thousands of farmers have descended upon the borders of New Delhi to protest new farming laws that they say will open them to corporate exploitation. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Manish Swarup
Trudeau brushes off India’s criticism for standing with farmers in anti-Modi protests

The High Commission of India in Ottawa had no comment when contacted Friday

Montreal Alouettes’ Michael Sam is set to make his pro football debut as he warms up before the first half of a CFL game against the Ottawa Redblacks in Ottawa on Friday, Aug. 7, 2015. Sam became the first publicly gay player to be drafted in the NFL. He signed with the Montreal Alouettes after being released by St. Louis, but abruptly left after playing one game. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Study finds Canada a ‘laggard’ on homophobia in sports

Among females, 44 per cent of Canadians who’ve come out to teammates reported being victimized

Nurse Kath Olmstead prepares a shot as the world’s biggest study of a possible COVID-19 vaccine, developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., gets underway Monday, July 27, 2020, in Binghamton, N.Y. U.S. biotech firm Moderna says its vaccine is showing signs of producing lasting immunity to COVID-19, and that it will have as many as many as 125 million doses available by the end of March. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Hans Pennink
Canada orders more COVID vaccines, refines advice on first doses as cases reach 400K

Canada recorded its 300,000th case of COVID-19 on Nov. 16

Apartments are seen lit up in downtown Vancouver as people are encouraged to stay home during the global COVID-19 pandemic on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. British Columbia’s deputy provincial health officer says provincewide data show the most important area B.C. must tackle in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic is health inequity. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Marissa Tiel
Age, income among top factors affecting well-being during pandemic, B.C. survey shows

Among respondents earning $20,000 a year or less, more than 41 per cent reported concern about food insecurity

Information about the number of COVID-19 cases in Abbotsford and other municipalities poses a danger to the public, the Provincial Health Services Authority says. (Photo: Tyler Olsen/Abbotsford News)
More city-level COVID-19 data would jeopardize public health, B.C. provincial health agency says

Agency refuses to release weekly COVID-19 case counts, citing privacy and public health concerns

Carmen Robinson was last seen getting off a bus in View Royal the evening of Dec. 8, 1973. Her case remains unsolved 47 years later. (Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers)
Gone cold: Fate of B.C. teen remains a mystery, 47 years after her disappearance

Carmen Robinson, 17, was last seen exiting a bus near Victoria in December 1973

Most Read