How to Support your Elementary-Aged Child’s Mental Health When We Return to School
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Parents across the country are worrying about the return to school this fall and what it will mean for their children, themselves, and everyone around them. These are strange times, and we are all feeling the stress from it.
The coronavirus pandemic that has shaken the world in recent months has most people feeling pretty apprehensive about returning to school. With no way of knowing for certain how it will all pan out, parents are concerned about the safety and well-being of their children. But, we have to dig deep during these times, take care of ourselves, monitor our mental health, and keep a close eye on our children’s mental health as well.
With school just around the corner, your school-age child might be feeling a wide range of emotions and possible stress. Kids process things differently than adults, and it is important during these times that we remain tuned into our children and their emotions. Here are some simple ways that you can help to support your child’s mental health as they navigate this new normal and return to a very different school year.
Work on your own mindset
As a parent who battles anxiety, this pandemic has challenged me tremendously, and I have had to dig deep to find the strength and positive mindset to be a good role model for my kids. I know that they watch me closely and take their cues from me, so I needed to keep my own anxiety in check, in order to be there for them. I focused on a mindset of gratitude, being grateful for our health, safety, and increased family time together.
As parents, we need to set the stage for a positive mindset, and we can do so by modeling our own. It is not always easy, and of course there are times when we are going to feel anxious, sad, stressed, or fed up, and that is perfectly fine and perfectly normal. But, it is so important that we pick ourselves back up and continue onward, modeling resilience and positivity for our kids.
Limit how much news your child overhears
Little ears are everywhere, and children pick up on everything. No, they may not answer when you call them, they may not pick up the toy in the middle of the floor that you’ve tripped on five times, but they will hear you discussing world events or watching the news. Be mindful of what you watch on tv if your children are around, because listening to the news could be quite upsetting for children to overhear. You want them to be aware of what is going on in the world, but you want them to know the appropriate level of information for their age. Hearing constant updates about the virus only serves to increase their anxiety, possibly confuse them even more, and make them worry unnecessarily.
Try to keep regular structure and routines at home
It has been incredibly hard maintaining routine these past few months, but it is something that my children thrive on. When life was all scattered, confusing, and up-in-the-air back in March when we were waiting to hear what the schools were doing, my children’s mental health was not good. They lacked the routine of school, they missed their friends, we were struggling to adjust to all that was being thrown at us, and the lack of structure caused them to worry even more.
Once we knew we weren’t returning to school in March, my husband and I got our heads back in the game, and we got our structure and routines set back up at home, with regular mealtimes, regular bedtimes, and some semblance of structure throughout the day – homeschooling, time outside, family time in the evening, etc. As much as you can manage, keep the routines going at home. Once your child returns to school, have that dinnertime, evening, bedtime routine in place so that there is security and structure at home. They may have to struggle through the uncertainty and unfamiliarity of the school day, but at least they can come home to their safe place, full of predictability and reassurance.
Be open when your child wants to talk
Your child may want to talk with you about their day, and they may have questions about how things are being done at school – extra hand-washing, social distancing, masks, etc. Be there when they need to talk, and just be a listening ear unless they want advice or have questions. Your child may just need to talk it out and let out the stresses of the day, and knowing that they can come to you to do that will do wonders in helping them know that they can get through this.
If they have questions about what’s going on, be honest with them and try to help them understand. There are many resources available online that are there for parents to access, when they are unsure of how to respond to a particular question. There’s nothing wrong with letting your child know that you don’t currently have the answer to a question, but that you’ll figure it out together. This is completely new for all of us! So, don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t have every answer. Just creating space for your child makes a huge difference, because it lets them know they’re safe and cared for.
Limit Screen Time
Many school districts have decided to open the school year with full distance learning. Whether it’s synchronous or asynchronous, undoubtedly kids will be on the screen. . . a lot. It is imperative that they are given frequent breaks to go outside, take in some fresh air and bright light as often as possible. Even the short 15 minute breaks in between meetings are beneficial. And if they can get some exercise while outside, even better. This will release endorphins and improve overall mood and well-being. A quick jog around the block, a few minutes of jump rope, hula-hooping or some jumping jacks and burpees are an easy and convenient way to accomplish this. Play some fun music outside and have a quick 10 minute dance party. The effects are cumulative and positive.
Consider enforcing no screen time from dinner for the rest of the evening. The light from the screen will delay their internal clock (circadian rhythm) and suppress the release of melatonin (hormone responsible for making us sleepy) thus children may not fall asleep until later. And by now, we all understand the importance a solid night’s sleep plays in mental well-being.
When confronted with something like this pandemic, children often worry more about the ones they love than they do about themselves. If they are overhearing that this virus tends to affect older people, for example, they may start to worry about their grandparents. Be sure to stay connected to loved ones during these times, especially if you live far apart. Let your kids call their grandparents and chat with them regularly, check in with relatives, and just maintain connection however you can. Having regular check-ins with loved ones can mean so much to kids, and it does wonders for all of us when we connect to the ones we love.
These are incredibly challenging times, and we don’t know what this school year will bring. All we can do for now is focus on caring for ourselves and our loved ones, and that includes caring for our mental health as well. These small steps can make a big difference for your child, and they can help to support positive mental health through this transition back to school. Just by being there for your child, and letting them know you’ve got their back, makes a world of difference.