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5 Tips On How To Cope With Back To School Anxiety Amid Recent COVID Surge

A teacher takes a n elementary school student's temperature.
Michael Minasi
Special education teacher Jennifer Moody checks the temperature of a student during screening at morning drop off at Boone Elementary School in South Austin on Oct. 9.

COVID-19 cases are surging in Texas, legal disputes about whether schools can enforce mask mandates are ongoing, and a number of schools don't have the funding for virtual learning.

All this has some parents and students nervous about what the new school year will bring.

Amanda Jordan is a children's psychologist at Cook Children's Medical Center in Fort Worth. She offered a few recommendations for how families can cope with those nerves about the upcoming school year:

1. Parents: Focus On Yourself First

Jordan said it's important that parents find ways to manage their own anxiety, before trying to help their kids work through their feelings.

"Because kids are really good at picking up on our emotions," she said.

For Jordan and her son, who started kindergarten this week, that means getting prepared. Maybe even overprepared, she joked.

“Last Saturday, my husband and I took our son up to the school campus," Jordan said. "We talked through, this is where we'll come through and we'll drop you off. This is where we'll come pick you up."

2. Stick To A Schedule

Jordan said each family can decide for themselves what that looks like, since everyone's situation is unique.

"I know that's not easy for every family," she said.

But Jordan said practicing those routines and having conversations with your kids about how things will work can reduce stress for everyone.

3. Know The Symptoms Of Childhood Anxiety

Jordan says anxiety can look a little different in children than it does with adults.

"Restlessness or difficulty concentrating, irritability; those are some things we often see," she said. "I think those are difficulties that parents don't always realize like, 'Oh, that's what's behind it.'"

Jordan said meltdowns can be an indicator that a child might be anxious.

“Like you ask them, 'Hey, can you go get your shoes?' Then all of a sudden we're on the floor kicking and screaming. That probably means we might be a little bit overwhelmed," she said.

Other symptoms could be a child withdrawing in any way, being more quiet than normal, difficulty sleeping, or eating habits changing. Jordan said anxiety can also cause headaches and tummy aches, or occasional toilet accidents.

"You're the expert on your kid," Jordan said.

4. Ask Kids How They're Feeling

Jordan said you should just outright ask your kids how they're feeling about going back to school — what they're excited about, what they're not excited about. She recommended finding something you know they'll be excited to talk about.

"So for example, my son loves recess, right? So one of the things that we talked about was 'Oh, I wonder what kind of games you're going to get to play in recess," she said.

Jordan said it can also be helpful to talk children through a situation that they may have initially felt anxious or nervous about, but turned out well.

"For example, [you could ask them] last year when you joined the soccer team, you know, you were really scared at the beginning, because you didn't know if you were going to make friends and if you were going to be good," she said.

Jordan says that can help kids work through their feelings, identify what they did to calm themselves down last time they felt nervous and use those coping skills again.

5. Name It To Tame It

Jordan says this concept is as simple as it sounds: have a child name the emotions they're experiencing to help work through them. She said sometimes younger kids have a difficult time identifying their feelings.

"It's this idea, if you can help kids name whatever emotion it is, then you can contain it, then you know what to do about it," she said.

Whether they're excited, scared, sad, nervous — Jordan said helping kids put words to what they're feeling helps them process them. It also helps normalize that everyone can experience those same emotions, even parents.

"Like adults are feeling this way, kids are feeling this way, and we're all in this together," she said.

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