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Dealing with COVID Back-to-School Anxiety

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Local experts weigh in with coping strategies for COVID-era nervousness. 

Thanks to COVID-19, back-to-school anxiety is off the charts. How to cope? Mental health experts around the region have ways to help kids (and adults) re-acclimate to the classroom—whether virtual or brick and mortar. First, validate children’s emotions. “It’s OK to be sad about not going to school like we normally do,” says Elisa Nebolsine, a licensed clinical social worker, cognitive behavioral therapist and clinical supervisor for the Beck Institute in Bala Cynwyd. “It’s OK to be worried, angry and overwhelmed. Talking about feelings is a good thing.”

Said feelings may be triggering some old behaviors. Faced with COVID-fueled uncertainty and danger, kids of all ages are regressing. “If they need an old stuffed animal or they want to watch a movie they haven’t watched for years, let them—they’re regrouping,” says Kristen Bielecki, senior clinical director of Villanova-based Devereux Pennsylvania Children’s Behavioral Health Services Center. “Parents may want to immediately try to correct that. Instead, acknowledge it.”

Elisa Nebolsine of the Beck Institute in Bala Cynwyd | Photo by Barbara Olivera

Interestingly, some people already diagnosed with clinical anxiety are navigating the pandemic surprisingly well. “People with high pre-quarantine anxiety were forced out of their stressful work or school environments by the quarantine and had an almost complete resolution in anxiety,” says Dr. David Danish of Philadelphia Integrative Psychiatry, which has offices in Wayne and Philadelphia. “The big fear is that this is a temporary reprieve.”

People in treatment have another advantage: They know they have anxiety. Talking about that actually empowers patients, Nebolsine says, because it helps them put their feelings into context. “Anxiety is overestimation of risk and underestimation of resources,” she says. “It amplifies the feeling that situations are much bigger and much worse than they really are. Knowing you do that can help you get through those difficult periods.”

Facts can be a great antidote to anxiety, provide your kids with COVID-mitigation information published by science-based medical organizations, much of which is presented in easy-to-understand steps. Also review safety protocols instituted by schools, sports teams and other organizations. “What seems overwhelming may not be after it’s properly digested,” Nebolsine says.

Wear masks for short periods of time and wash hands regularly. “And practice how to socially distance at school,” Bielecki says. “If another kid is coming into your space, what can you say in a nice way? Limit the number of completely novel experiences your child will have.”

Danish suggests ramping up social interactions and slowly expanding kids’ quarantine crews. “It’s key that children have some social interaction with their peers on a daily basis,” she says, “whether it’s virtual, with other families who are safely quarantined, or through well-controlled, socially distanced get-togethers in someone’s backyard or a park.”

Don’t be helicopter parents—but Danish recommends regular check-ins. Over dinner or in the car, ask kids how they feel about COVID-related situations. Don’t fish for answers, but ask questions that require more than “yes” or “no” responses. “‘How was that for you?’ and ‘Tell me more about that?’ are great conversations starters with kids,” says Bielecki.

Focus on building resiliency. “Remind children that they’ve already done things that they didn’t think they could do,” Nebolsine says. “Build a narrative of what they’ve accomplished and relate it to COVID.”

Bielecki agrees. “We need to protect our kids, but we don’t need to fragilize them,” she says. “They can come through tough challenges.”

Adults can, too—and parents don’t need to be superheroes for their kids. “I can’t overstate the importance of parents teaching their children that fear is a natural emotion that can be managed constructively with the help of family,” says Danish.

Parents also need their own self-care strategies. “Be kind to yourself as a caregiver,” Bielecki says. “Don’t be judgmental about your parenting if your kid is regressing or exhibiting other behaviors.”

Nebolsine suggests effective kid-friendly relaxation apps like Calm and Headspace. Exercise is also key, as is getting outside in safe places. Slivers of normalcy and moments of joy can be found, experts say. Now more than ever, it’s important to treasure them.

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