Supporting Children’s Mental Wellness While Encouraging Pandemic Prevention Measures
We’ve been hearing from a lot of parents in recent weeks—parents who have a lot of questions and concerns about what school is going to look like this year. What follows are some typical questions—and our best advice on managing each of these issues.
“How can I help my child to prepare for the new safety protocols that will be in place when they return to school? I guess what I’m struggling with is the fact that the situation is constantly changing. Won’t they find it confusing if the “rules” that are in place keep changing over time?”
It will be a bit confusing—for them and for us! All of us are having to adjust to the fact that the situation is likely to continue to evolve over time. But one thing we know for certain is that things are going to be different this year. Students who return to school in-person can expect to see changes in almost all parts of the school day. This is because our understanding of what will be required to keep ourselves and others safe is changing on an almost daily basis. And that’s a good thing. It means we’re finding new and better ways of dealing with the challenge because we’re open to learning and changing courses as we go.
Some changes will be happening on a regional/board/school/student basis, while other changes will be more universal. Some of the more universal kinds of changes are likely to be familiar to your child by now—the specific measures that public health officials have been recommending to keep everyone safe. But even if your child is already familiar with these procedures, practice them until they become second nature—things like washing your hands, wearing a mask, and maintaining physical distancing. If they are able to visit the school before it opens, it may be helpful for them to see the new set-up.
TIP: Help your child to appreciate the benefits of taking a flexible approach to dealing with the challenges of dealing with COVID-19 by talking about other times in their life when they were able to benefit from this very same kind of flexible thinking. Maybe they stumbled upon a better way of solving a problem because they were persistent. Instead of settling for the first solution that came to mind, they held out for a better solution.
You can help your child to figure out what they will need to do in order to comply with these measures: for example, making a plan for packing, storaging, and cleaning any masks that will be accompanying them to school; and coming up with a strategy for storing sanitizer in a consistent spot (perhaps in a particular pocket in their backpack) if they will be carrying that backpack to school.
And you’ll want to give your child a chance to talk about how they expect things to go at school—what they’re looking forward to (perhaps being reunited with friends), what they might be worried about (perhaps staying safe or not being allowed to interact with a friend in another class), and what they need from you right now. As you have these ongoing conversations, you’ll want to read between the lines: to try to pinpoint the underlying worry or worries. Sometimes what they’re wondering about is less about a particular rule and more about whether or not they’re going to be okay. That’s where they’d benefit from some additional love and support from you.
This summer when my son returned to camp, we were having some issues that my son suddenly wanted to touch everyone in the camp class and be close to them. We called a Children’s Mental Health Ontario walk-in clinic and spoke to a child and youth mental health professional to ask for tips on how do we further teach our four-year-old son to be safe in a pandemic without scaring him or crushing his spirit? We had one session and they were very helpful and gave us some new ideas. For example, when my son feels like he needs attention or affection now from camp counsellors or other kids, he understands now to do elbow bumps. We didn’t take away his opportunities to show affection, we just redirected him a safe option. We also changed some of our language around how we talk about the pandemic, reminding our son that this is only temporary. And one of the key things was to talk to him about prevention in a way that doesn’t scare him, ie, the virus COULD be on our hands, but it may not be. But just in case, we are going to wash our hands. It was really helpful and comforting to have some tips from a professional because the pandemic, overall, has been a stressful time for us and we feel like we have constantly been mitigating risk (my son’s father is at-risk). We were offered three follow-up sessions to help us transition back to school.
“My child is really struggling right now. The past six months have been really hard for them. They are a lot more anxious than they used to be. Should I let their teacher know that they’re struggling?”
Your child’s teacher would definitely benefit from knowing ahead of time that your child is having an exceptionally hard time right now. While all children have been impacted by the experience of living through a global pandemic, some have been affected more than others.
If this is the case for your child, it’s a good idea to communicate with the school. If you already have an existing relationship with the school administration, special education staff, or a school social worker, this would be an ideal time to reach out to make contact again. If you don’t already have an existing relationship, visit the website for your child’s school for help in making contact with the appropriate person.
TIP: If you find that you are not getting anywhere with your child’s teacher or the answers that teacher has provided to you are unsatisfactory, you might want to reach out to the school’s social worker, child-youth worker, or a guidance counsellor, or to the board’s mental health leads to tap into some additional resources and support.
And if you’re not able to make contact with the school right away—or you choose to take a bit more of a “wait and see” approach—please know that that’s okay, too. You don’t have to have a complete game plan in place by the first day of school. Teachers and school administrators will still be figuring things out at that point, too. What matters most is that we commit to continuing to learn and grow together.
Some parents worry about maintaining their child’s privacy. While this is a valid concern and it is always your choice as a parent what you choose to disclose about your child’s mental health, it’s important to recognize that sharing this type of information can make it easier for key people at your child’s school to provide your child with the support they need. For example, your child’s support team at school might benefit from knowing if your child has experienced changes to symptoms related to their mental health, developed any new symptoms, received a new diagnosis, or experienced any significant impact on their mental wellness as a result of the pandemic.
It’s something to think about.
“My child has a million-and-one questions about heading back to school. I’ve poured through all the information on the school website and I even participated in a back-to-school webinar hosted by the local school board, but I still can’t find answers to all my child’s questions. Sometimes, I just have to say, ‘I don’t know!’”
It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” That’s an honest way to respond in this situation—and you’re actually teaching your child an important lesson: that you don’t have to have all the answers in order to move forward.
There will be some unanswered questions. Some of them your child will obtain answers for once school begins and some may remain unanswerable for a while. And, of course, the answers to certain questions are likely to change over time as pandemic safety protocols continue to evolve.
While you might feel like you’re letting your child down by not having answers to these questions, it can actually be incredibly helpful to encourage your child to ask these questions. Even asking the question allows a child to feel heard—and it gives you insights into what your child is thinking. It’s a great opportunity to connect with your child and talk through things together.
Here are a few quick tips on encouraging and responding to all those great questions. Encourage your child to open up to you.
- Ask them open-ended questions that are designed to spark discussion
- How do you feel about the way things are going at school
- Tell me about getting to and from school. How is it different? Better? More challenging? What is challenging?
- Tell me about your friends/classmates? How are they coping? What are they saying about the way things are going at school?
- How is the schoolwork this year?
- What’s going on with your clubs/teams? What is different? What do you like or not like about these changes?
- Let your child know that you appreciate hearing these questions and that you’ll do your best to help them find answers.
- If one of your child’s questions triggers a lot of anxiety for you, sit with that question for a moment. Ask yourself what it is about that question that is causing you so much concern and then allow yourself to consider how you might choose to respond (ideally in a way that empowers your child as opposed to amplify their anxiety).
Wondering what kinds of worries might be top of mind for kids who are heading back to school this year? Here’s a roundup of the kinds of concerns we’ve been hearing from kids in recent weeks.
Fears about not being academically prepared for this school year (a common worry for students who may have struggled with online learning in the spring).
Fears about having to revert to online learning if schools are forced to shut down again (a particularly pressing concern for students who really disliked or struggled with online learning).
Anxiety about the far-reaching impact of the pandemic on the student’s family (for example, parents have been dealing with stress from finances, employment, relationship breakdowns, increased substance use or other COVID-related difficulties).
Deep feelings of disappointment about what simply might not be possible during the current school year (for example, field trips, special events, assemblies, sports, clubs, and other valued non-academic activities) plus ongoing grief about what the student missed out on during the previous school year (for example, major milestones like graduations or awards ceremonies.
Anxiety about making the transition back to school-year routines after many months of pandemic living, which may have meant erratic sleep patterns, increased screen time, and decreased physical activity for many students.
More perennial back-to-school worries: academic worries, social worries, and more specific worries about specific challenges the student has faced in the past (for example, experiences with bullying, learning struggles as a result of a learning disorder, and so on).
You Don’t Have to Do This Alone.
If you are a parent/caregiver worried about your child, or a young person looking for help yourself – please reach out. Our network of child and youth mental health centres has 4,000 professionals ready to help children, youth and families with free counselling and treatment. We provide care in person, on the phone and virtually. No problem is too big or small.
Find your closest child and youth mental health centre.