Over a year and a half of coping with the pandemic is taking a toll on everyone’s emotional and mental health — and may be affecting children and teens even more than adults. According to recent research from the Kaiser Family Foundation, over 25% of high school students have experienced a decline in emotional and cognitive health since March 2020, and over 20% of parents with children aged 5-12 reported similar worsening conditions for their children. And as kids everywhere are now getting back into classrooms, their feelings of stress and anxiety may also be hard for them to cope with.
Fortunately, there are proactive steps parents can take to help children and teens manage their feelings during this transition back to school. Dr. Rhonda Randall, chief medical officer at UnitedHealthcare, offers her tips to help your child adjust to the ongoing changes and challenges as they head back to class.
1. Share information
It’s important to be proactive, providing your children with age-appropriate information and support, now and as the school year continues. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, CDC.gov, is a great resource for learning how to talk to your child about COVID-19.
Beyond talking to your child, remember to take time to listen and acknowledge their concerns. Be emotionally supportive and understand that their worries may go beyond just the initial back-to-school phase. After such a long period of change and upheaval in their lives, helping children reduce stress and providing strong support can help them get through any possible challenges that may arise.
2. Help children feel secure
Going back to school after such a long pause may feel daunting for children. Be reassuring about safety and validate their feelings by letting them know it’s OK to feel upset, scared, anxious, down or even angry. You can also share some of the ways that you manage your feelings, to help them learn from you. Make sure children know that they can ask you questions at any time. For adolescents, consider using self-care tools like the Sanvello app to help them navigate difficult emotions.
3. Listen and watch
Parents and family members are often the first line of defense for children who may be struggling but are unable to tell you what they need. Let them know you’re there to listen and that it’s safe to share how they’re feeling with you. Pay attention to more than just words. By watching your child and listening to how they speak, you can be aware of their moods and notice any uncharacteristic changes in behavior, so you’ll know when it’s time to seek expert support.
For example, some common signs of depression in children include feeling sad, hopeless or irritable, having a hard time paying attention, low energy or fatigue, feeling worthless or useless and showing self-injury and self-destructive behaviors. Contact your child’s healthcare provider if you have questions or concerns about behavior changes that you’re seeing.
4. Define boundaries and create regular routines
Consider limiting exposure to news coverage as well as to social media. Instead, spend time interacting with each other in positive ways, like family dinners, movie nights and game nights. Consider asking your child if they’d like to start a new after-school activity, sport or hobby that interests them. Establishing regular routines can help provide children with structure when they’re not in the classroom, which also helps them to manage their emotional well-being.
5. Take action
Discuss any concerns you have about your child or teen with your pediatrician or family physician as soon as possible. Your healthcare provider may recommend a plan of action or even a counselor who could help you find ways to reduce unhealthy stress and improve your child’s overall health and well-being.
For more health and wellness information, visit UHC.com.