Returning To School In-Person Means Kids Will Need A Lot of Support
As New York City schools return to in-person classes, many parents and kids are dealing with anxiety about yet another uncertain transition—one of many in the past year and a half. Our Founder and Clinical Director Matt Lundquist returned to WNYC’s All Of It with Alison Stewart to share his observations on the many concerns of parents, kids, teachers, and other school professionals as schools reopen and how parents can create conditions where these anxieties can be discussed openly with their children.
In the segment “Back-To-School Anxiety,” Matt emphasizes, both through responding to calls with parents and speaking to Stewart, that parents have a big job to do right now. Kids may need coaching, extra tutoring, and help to process loss, whether that means changing schools, friends moving away, and/or, of course, the death of a loved one. Kids may also need help being patient with teachers that may be in a new role, learning to teach in a new way, or dealing with fear themselves. They may also need extra help with playdates and socialization. And many kids are experiencing acute anxiety and depression at a moment when our mental health system is taxed. Matt explains, “Young people are going to need a lot of supporting. We’re going to need to recognize that recovering isn’t just about going back to normal…For some students, it’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of support.”
Parents Can Balance Being Vigilant Without Being Scared Or Giving Their Kids More Anxiety
Since kids will need support, parents should be aware of the differences between “feeling anxious and being protective.” This isn’t always easy. Anxiety can be, Matt articulates, “a useful adaptive response in certain situations,” but it can also cloud perception and be confusing. When it’s acute, it can be hard to know what’s real and necessary versus what’s more than the situation warrants. For parents, it can be tricky to tell where the line is between your own worry for yourself, your worry for your kid, and what is necessary for them to know and feel to protect themselves.
Parents should slow down and start with the behaviors they want their kids to focus on—socially distance, listen to a teacher’s instructions, wash their hands regularly, and keep their masks on. Parents then can decide: How much fear is needed for kids to comply? Do they need to be made more afraid and anxious in order to comply or is it enough to know that’s what’s needed to stay safe? “What it means to be in the world is to engage in degrees of risk,” Matt says. “Our job as parents is not to eliminate [threats and dangers], but be vigilant about those things and educate our kids to make thoughtful decisions to mitigate those things.”
It’s also simply the case that sometimes parents are more worried than their kids and their kids are being smart by doing what’s needed to mitigate risk. In these cases, it’s important for parents to “own” their anxiety and get help with it so they’re not teaching their kids more worry.
How Can Parents Help Kids’ Back-To-School Anxiety?: Create The Conditions For Open Conversations About This Transition
One of the biggest ways parents can support their kids is to be open and communicate with children about these anxiety-provoking transitions—what they’re anxious about, what they’re feeling or anticipating, or what went on that previous day in school. “I think the parents who are the most successful are parents who build environments with their kids where their kids share with them and want to know what they think. I think that’s especially true now when there’s so much that’s uncertain,” Matt says.
Sometimes parents are concerned that if they name a worry by asking their child about it that it brings it into existence. For example, that asking, “Are you worried about how close the desks are?” or “Are you having a hard time connecting with old friends?” will somehow make it so. That’s just not true. As adults, we need to name the scary thing, even speculatively, so that our children can have the language for it and know they have someone with whom they can talk about the hard stuff.
Granted, even though many kids are anxious right now, Matt notes, “That doesn’t mean if you ask them directly, they’re going to say so in so many words.” Rather than trusting a child’s brushing-off, be aware that sometimes anxiety can come out in indirect ways such as acting out or breaking rules when anxiety is really underneath. Matt suggests approaching kids not with one big conversation about back-to-school anxiety, but raising topics in a bunch of ways, being gentle rather than pushy. Say, “I wonder how you’re feeling about X.” or “Sam’s mom mentioned he was pretty worried about school shutting down. How are you doing with that?” “This is not a moment to be too worried about helicopter parenting,” Matt asserts, encouraging, “Keep asking.”