Doesn’t it seem like only yesterday we were told that schools would be closing, work would be done from home, we needed to “shelter in place,” distancing ourselves from friends and family and, basically, that life as we knew it would be completely turned upside down because of this ‘thing’ called COVID-19.

Here we are, 5 months later, gearing up to send our kids back to school. Whether your child is going back to school in-person or will be continuing “distanced learning,” many children and families are feeling a tremendous amount of anxiety. And for good reason…

The brain doesn’t like unpredictability!

While there is so much that remains uncertain, what we do know is there there ARE things we can do to help reduce anxiety and ease our children’s transition into the new school year.
Five Tips for Managing Back-to-School Anxiety (Theirs and Ours!):

1) Have a conversation – Although there are still so many unknowns, it’s important to keep the lines of communication open. Ask your kids if they have any questions about what the school year will look like. Some children will have many questions, others won’t. Follow your child’s lead, answering matter-of-factly, to the best of your knowledge and don’t be afraid to say when you’re unsure. (ie “That is a great question and I appreciate you asking. I don’t know the answer, but let’s see if we can find out together.”) Let your kids know you are there to listen and support them every step of the way.

2) Let them know what to expect – Change is difficult for everyone, especially kids. Discuss how the rules will be different this year. For those going back to school, there will be masks, social distancing, frequent hand-washing, temperature checks etc. Teachers will be in masks and won’t be allowed to get too close to kids. Lunch may be eaten indoors. Recess will look different as well. For online learners, there will likely be back-to-back zoom meetings, with some breaks in between. They may or may not have after school activities. Mom and/or Dad may be working from home.

3) Create rituals and predictable routines – Having a predictable routine, along with fun rituals such as a special way you’ll say goodbye everyday, or playing music in the mornings, creates a sense of safety, security and comfort. In addition, all children have a need to feel a sense of belonging (connection) and significance (that they matter; have something meaningful to contribute). When we involve our kids in problem solving, including coming up with a predictable daily routine together, we help meet these needs and also help our children feel empowered. Before going back to school, include your children in coming up with a plan for what the days will look like. Recognize this is a big adjustment for all, so be open and flexible where possible. Having a visual schedule using pictures for younger kids (of the steps in their routine) or a written out plan for older children, helps them know what to expect and reduces anxiety.

4) Be open to any and all feelings – Be prepared for a wide range of feelings around going back to school. Kids may feel anxious/scared/worried, sad, disappointed, even angry. Others may feel excited to see friends and be back in the school environment. You may also notice feelings fluctuating – happy one day, worried the next. It’s all normal! Whatever your child feels, be open to listening with curiosity, empathy and compassion. Also know that some kids, especially younger ones, may express how they feel via their behavior. For example, it’s not uncommon to have an increase in power struggles, regressive behavior (bedwetting, clinginess, trouble sleeping etc), separation anxiety etc. during uncertain times and transitions. When challenging behavior shows up, get curious about what’s beneath it. Remind yourself that your child is doing the best he can with the skills he has and needs your calm, patient guidance during this unprecedented adjustment. Mantra’s such as “I can handle this.” “She’s acting like a child because she is a child and needs my help.” “Connection first.” are helpful in keeping ourselves grounded and centered, especially when we feel triggered.

5) Manage your own anxiety – It’s completely normal to feel a wide range of emotions yourself. This is an incredibly stressful time with so many unknowns! Find a supportive tribe with whom you can share your worries, fears and frustrations. If support is limited, even writing in a journal can be helpful. Keep in mind that our children pick up on our energy and tend to manage and regulate their emotions by how we manage and regulate ours. So, when you’re with your kids, do your best to model a “calm confidence.” The reality is, you and your children ARE CAPABLE of doing hard, new and challenging things.

Ultimately, be sure to take care you YOU! Carve out time for yourself and do whatever it is that brings you joy, reach out for support, take breaks, acknowledge and honor your feelings, get outside when you can, move your body, hug those kiddos, notice what *is* going well and remind yourself that
you and your kids will get through this!