Between the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, repeated school shootings, and the growing spread of Monkeypox, managing stress during the fall 2022 return to school is no easy feat. Parents, kids, and teachers may all be experiencing psychological stress during this challenging transition.
How can parents support their children while managing their own stress? And when are anxiety symptoms a sign of a mental health issue that needs addressing vs. typical transition-related stress? In this article, we’ll answer all of these questions and more.
How to talk to your child about returning to in-person school
Many different stressors can increase stress levels during the fall 2022 return to school. Maybe you or your child are concerned about COVID-19 or recent school shootings. Perhaps your child became more comfortable with virtual learning and is now feeling stressed at the thought of going to school in person.
Regardless of the cause of your child’s back-to-school stress, one of the best ways you can support them and alleviate some of their stress is by talking to them. Create space for open dialogue that allows them to ask questions and express their fears.
Here are some ideas on how to approach this:
Ask them how they’re feeling - Check in with your child about how they’re feeling about returning to school. Do they feel excited? Nervous? Hopeful? Ask them about what’s behind those emotions. Give them space to share and process without attempting to “fix” their emotions or provide solutions. One of the best things you can do is to just create space for them to share and thoughtfully listen.
Take their worries seriously, but be realistic - When we feel anxious, it can be easy to spiral into potential worst-case scenarios. Don’t dismiss your child’s worries, but it’s okay to bring in a healthy dose of realism. For instance, if your child is worried that they won’t make any friends, you might say, “I know it can be hard to make new friends, but you’re a very funny kid and you make a great friend. When you’re ready, let’s brainstorm some strategies that you can try to meet new friends.”
Address their concerns - If your child has specific concerns, address them together. It’s important to work collaboratively with your child to find solutions rather than trying to fix things for them, especially for teens. Brainstorm together what might help them feel better, whether that’s seeing the school in person before starting, planning to wear a mask during class, or something else.
Signs of anxiety symptoms
Transitions always create added psychological stress, so it’s not necessarily a cause for concern if your child experiences some separation anxiety or anxiety symptoms when returning to school.
However, sometimes anxiety symptoms are a sign of a mental health issue that needs to be addressed by a qualified practitioner.
Here are some signs of anxiety symptoms to look out for in your child or teen:
Disruptions in sleep, either sleeping too much or not enough
Irritability or mood swings
Complaints of physical symptoms, like headaches and stomach aches
Having a hard time sitting still
Crying or upset
Clinging to you or another parent/caregiver
On its own, any one of these anxiety symptoms could be a normal reaction to a stressful transition. However, if you notice several of these symptoms in your child, or the symptoms persist or get worse over time, it could be a good idea to reach out to a therapist or pediatrician to provide an added layer of professional support.
Managing stress as a parent
Returning to school isn’t just stressful for kids - it can be challenging for parents as well. As a parent, you might feel that you’re managing your own set of worries, stressors, and anxiety as your child returns to in-person school. Just as you support your child, don’t forget to also make space for yourself during this stressful time.
One of the best things you can do for managing stress is to ensure that you have a safe and supportive outlet for the emotions that you’re feeling. Whether that means confiding in a trusted friend, journaling, or working with a therapist to process your emotions, ensure that you’re giving yourself the space you need to cope.
How to find help managing back-to-school stress
At Westmoreland Psychotherapy Associates, we have many specialists who are experts in helping youth and adults cope with psychological stress related to life transitions, like returning to school. We can work with you and your family to process the stress and emotions you’re experiencing related to this transition.