Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, one in five kids in the U.S. has experienced anxiety, according to data published this month in JAMA Pediatrics, a medical journal.
Now with most kids returning to school in-person this year amid the delta variant and as mask mandate debates continue throughout the country, it is to be expected that anxiety and stress levels may again be on the rise, experts say.
“We need to make space for the fact that kids may be experiencing very new things," said Dave Anderson, Ph.D., vice president of school and community programs at the Child Mind Institute, an organization dedicated to mental health work with children and families. "It's really important to say, 'Just because we're excited to be returning to some sense of normalcy, what do I need to support you around? What might you be nervous about?'"
Leena and Sunil Saini, of Newtown, Pennsylvania, said they are in the midst of anxiety-inducing change as they send their daughters, Kirina and Ela, to school after socially isolating together for the past 18 months.
"We've been in this protective bubble until now and now we’re sending them out into the world," said Leena Saini, whose husband, Sunil, is also returning to work in-person. "Sending them back to school now, it's kind of anxiety-provoking, and what's hard is we as parents are anxious, but don't want to transfer that anxiety to our kids."
Here are four tips from Anderson to help the anxiety families like the Sainis are experiencing in this time of big changes.
1. Stay calm and open with your child.
While parents like the Sainis' may be worried about pushing their own anxiety onto their children, Anderson said it is okay for parents to talk to a certain extent with their kids about how they're feeling.
“The answer is always something in moderation," said Anderson. "We don't want a parent to fully suppress everything that they're feeling."
When talking with their kids about school, parents should try not to ask leading questions, like, "Are you nervous about going back to school?" according to the Child Mind Institute's back to school guide.
Anderson recommends parents listen to and validate their child's feelings by telling them, "We know you're going to have feelings. Those feelings are very valid. Let's focus on the things that might you might be optimistic about this particular change, and then beyond that, we're just going to take it as it comes.”
And parents themselves can help to ease their own anxiety by, first, taking a deep breath, according to Anderson. He noted that parents may also find it helpful to review the procedures their child's school has put in place to help ease their worries.
2. Reassure your child you'll still have time with them.
For many families, the pandemic lockdown meant more time together than they were used to spending. For some children, adjusting back to the routine of being apart during the day may prove difficult, according to Anderson.
“We can say to kids, 'Even as I go back to the office, maybe those days where you see me less, know that I have valued this time where we've been able to see each other, and there will still be days when that rhythm is still kind of there,'" he said. "And I think kids get comforted by that.”
3. Talk to your child about things to do to stay safe.
Wearing face masks and taking other safety measures against COVID-19 may be anxiety-inducing for some students who are being asked by their parents to do so when their peers are not.
Especially when it comes to masks, which have become a heated debate in some school districts, parents should have conversations with their child ahead of time, according to Anderson.
"It's going back and saying to the child, 'Well, look, we've made the decision that you're going to wear a mask. We're going to find you a good fitting one,'" said Anderson, who added that parents can also talk to their child about when they can take mask breaks and the fact that some classmates may be unmasked. "And the reality is that any child who's in a mixed-mask environment is going to feel comfortable fairly quickly with that norm, likely even more quickly than adults."
4. Focus on sleep, diet and movement.
In addition to focusing on kids' feelings, parents should also pay attention to what their kids are eating and how much sleep and movement they're getting, according to Anderson.
Those elements of an overall healthy lifestyle can help children, and parents, cope with stress.
"It's going back to basic wellness habits. Get some sleep, make sure you're feeding yourself, make sure you're moving your body in some way and that you're getting some sort of social support," said Anderson. "If you can check off those boxes a bit, you're going to be better able to confront the challenges.”
A lesson from the pandemic is that anything can change at any time, so parents should prepare their children to be flexible and prepared for potential changes with school, according to the Child Mind Institute's back to school guide.
"It’s helpful for kids to know that you’re prepared for changes that may occur. Let your child know that the whole family is going to have to be flexible," the guide recommends.
Know when to seek help.
Parents can look for several behavior changes in their child that signal it is time to seek professional mental health help.
Those changes include having severe meltdowns at drop-off time for more than two or three weeks, and being unable to recover or to even stay at school, for more than three or four weeks, or having school-related worries that cause repeated headaches and stomachaches, constant visits to the school nurse, or refusal to go to school, according to the Child Mind Institute.