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Help Your Child Navigate an Unusual Start to the School Year

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Back to school is looking quite different this year.

Whether your child is headed back to school in-person, online or a bit of both, the transition during the continued pandemic could be more stressful than previous years. With fires now added into the mix, the start of this year is beyond a typical.

“The beginning of a new school year is always full of emotion for children and their parents, but this year brings an additional layer of uncertainty,” said neuropsychologist Lindsey Felix, PhD, of Samaritan Neuropsychology – Albany.  “Children may need more reassurance than usual from the adults in their lives.”

Dr. Felix recommends that parents or guardians sit down with their kids and talk about what they can expect from school this year.

“Help your child understand the added safety protocols in place and what a typical day may look like with physical distancing and face mask measures in place. If your child will be attending school virtually, explain what the schedule will look like -- how much time they’ll spend on their schooling and when they’ll have breaks,” Dr. Felix. “The more you can help children feel prepared for what to expect, the better.”

It is normal for children to feel heightened anxiety right now, she noted.

“Encourage your child to talk about their feelings,” said Dr. Felix. “Sometimes, talking can happen more spontaneously while doing an activity together such as going for a walk or folding laundry. Listen to any worries they have and then brainstorm together ways they can manage them. For example, if your child is worried about seeing a friend they haven’t seen since school closed last spring, suggest they connect by phone before seeing each other at school.”

Mostly, it’s important for your child to feel supported.

“Empathy and support go a long way. If you don’t know what else to do, demonstrate that you understand how they feel and that you are there to help them as best you can,” Dr. Felix said. “You don’t have to have all the answers. Even if you only listen and share their concern, you can be a critical resource for helping them cope with stress.”

Dr. Felix suggests that parents and guardians also try to keep a positive perspective with challenges.

“Children can pick up on the moods of adults, so if you’re feeling anxious and stressed out, they will too,” she said. “The pandemic has created a worrying time for all of us, and some have been directly impacted by losses of all kinds. If we adults practice good coping skills for our own stress, such as exercise, meditation, journal writing or talking with a good friend, we can be better prepared to respond to our children in a centered, calm manner.”

Of course, that may be easier said than done, especially when parents are working full time and juggling homeschooling responsibilities.

“It’s true that this has been a particularly stressful time for parents who are having to handle their child’s schooling in addition to a job, often from the same location. Rather than focusing on the difficulties, is it possible to reframe your experience and look at the positives, such as increased family time, an opportunity to know your child better and the subjects h/she is studying? Often, when we can reframe our experience in a positive manner, our stress decreases and that of our kids too,” said Dr. Felix.

While a child may experience a lack of concentration or difficulty sleeping during stressful times, most children learn to cope well when they have good support from their adult loved ones. However, significant behavior changes may require additional help from a professional.

“If you see big changes in your child’s behavior, such as increased irritability or sadness, acting out behaviors, ongoing changes in their eating, sleeping or toileting, it may be time to get additional help. Your child’s pediatrician can help you assess whether or not your child would benefit from seeing a mental health professional,” Dr. Felix said.

“Most of the time, children are remarkably resilient, especially when their families provide a sense of safety, calm and even hope,” she noted. “When parents can keep the lines of communication open with their kids, provide reassurance as needed, access additional support when it’s called for, and have fun together, challenges can be overcome.”

Dr. Felix also reminded parents to remember to take care of yourself as well.

“It’s important to remember that with this pandemic especially, but even with parenting in general, we build the road as we drive on it. We can’t expect to have all the answers,” she said. “Be kind and patient with yourself and practice good self-care so you can be present to your kids when they need you most.”

Read more about helping children through these challenging times.

Lindsey Felix, PhD, is a neuropsychologist who specializes in providing neuropsychological assessments for pediatric patients at Samaritan Neuropsychology - Albany. If you’d like to learn more about working with a mental health professional, contact your primary care provider for a referral.