Helping Children with Anxiety About In-Person Learning

Parents around the world are struggling with how to help their child transition well from virtual learning to in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. I live and practice in Houston and Texas schools re-opened at the beginning of the current school year. For the past nine months, I have worked with many children and families on this issue. Here are some suggestions that have helped other parents and, hopefully, they will be helpful to you as well.

First, normalize and validate the anxious feelings your child is experiencing about returning to a more normal way of life after a year of isolation and lockdowns. It is normal to feel anxious in the context of what has been a very abnormal and challenging year for all of us.

Be present with your child when they feel anxious. Support from adults helps promote resilience in children. Listening to your child’s concerns without avoiding, dismissing, or minimizing their experience communicates that their anxious feelings are manageable, that they aren’t too much to handle. 

Monitor and manage your own anxiety about your child’s return to school because our anxiety can be contagious for our children. 

When kids feel anxious, they often want to avoid the situation that is causing the anxiety. I tell kids that avoidance makes the anxiety grow bigger, while facing the anxiety makes it smaller. You can support your child by helping them find coping strategies to push through their anxiety.

Try to identify the specific cause of your child’s anxiety about returning to in-person learning. Over the past nine months, I’ve seen kids feeling anxious for a variety of reasons: health anxiety (e.g., Am I going to get COVID at school); mask anxiety; social anxiety; academic anxiety; and separation anxiety. 

Anxious thoughts tell us stories that aren’t accurate. When we think about those thoughts over and over, we get more and more anxious. You can help your child identify those inaccurate stories and replace them with accurate stories. Kids can learn to coach themselves to focus on those new, accurate stories rather than the inaccurate ones when they start feeling anxious. 

As I previously said, feeling anxious is normal right now in our very abnormal circumstances. However, if your child’s anxiety doesn’t get better or worsens after a couple of weeks back at school, consult with a licensed mental health professional who specializes in treating children. 

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