By SELENA SEABROOKS
The Dallas Examiner
“Back to school time, in general, can be stressful for students, parents and teachers, whether in person or virtually, let alone, during a pandemic. There are so many uncertainties right now about COVID-19 in general, but we know that uncertainty can be a breeding ground for anxiety,” stated Dr. Krystal Lewis, a NIMH licensed clinical psychologist during Back to School – Coping with the Pandemic and Re-Entry Stress, Aug. 24.
The National Institute of Mental Health hosted the event on Instagram Live to discuss the stress of children returning to school and coping techniques that can be used to help reduce anxiety and improve the transition.
Lewis opened the discussion by talking about the difficulties and uncertainties of children returning to school, then moved on to discuss how stress affects everyone differently.
“We know that stress is a completely normal experience. We’ve all had stress at one point or another in our lives and everybody experiences stress in different ways. Something that might stress me out might not be a stressor for you. Something that you find stressful might not be stressful for one of your friends. When considering this back-to-school time, it’s important to know that everyone might experience this transition a little bit differently,” Lewis said.
Stress and anxiety
Stress can lead to anxiety, Lewis said, but clarified that they have similarities but were not the same. Stress is a response to an external cause or situation – as an example, preparing for a major presentation, taking an exam or transitioning back to school. Stress can be positive or negative and usually goes away once the situation is resolved.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is a response to something that is happening. It is an internal experience, which is often a reaction to a stressor.
“The difference here is that anxiety sometimes can be persistent and chronic and it may not go away. It does not go away once the actual stressor is removed. If there’s no immediate threat around you, you can still experience that anxiety, more often focused on the future and the what-ifs, what could happen. There’s no immediate danger but that anxiety continues to be there,” she explained.
Lewis expounded upon stress and stated that stress is a common, everyday part of life, but explained that it can become chronic or continuous. She referred to chronic stress and expressed that when a person is stressed for a long time, it can be detrimental to the brain, the body and how that person responds to stress – such as headaches, stomachaches, muscle aches or a sense of generally not feeling well.
“The amount of stress that we’re feeling can impact our overall well-being. So, it’s important that you keep in mind when you’re feeling these signs and symptoms of stress and anxiety so that you know at what point you should intervene and do something about it,” she commented.
Transitioning back to school
Lewis suggested that parents plan for the first day of school, before any major changes at school, or transitioning from home learning to in school learning. Several days ahead, parents should think through how that day will look – consider the general morning routine: the time the child should wake up and when and how the child must arrive at school.
She recommended that parents complete a run-through of how the first day will proceed. In the days leading up to the first day of school, parents should have their child go to bed a little earlier each night. It is important to have a good schedule and routine that everyone in the family can follow.
She noted that parents should talk to their children about any concerns they may be having about school.
“It’s easy for parents to invalidate their child because when they bring them a concern, as parents, we just want to make sure they feel okay, that they’re not anxious, that they’re ready to go. So, they come to you with a concern, we might say, ‘Well you don’t have to worry about that,’ ‘That’s a silly thing, why are you even thinking about that?’ and your goal is to help them feel better but in doing so you’re invalidating their experience,” she stated.
She emphasized the importance of parent’s voicing to their children that they understand and explaining that it is OK to feel scared and anxious. Following this, parents should talk through plans to resolve the situation with the child. She cautioned parents to avoid feeding into avoiding their child’s concerns or fears, but acknowledge their feelings.
As another tip, Lewis stated that parents should also express their concerns and let their child know that they, as a parent, also feel anxious at times.
“For you parents out there, if there’s a fine line between showing your kids that emotion about being nervous, and then also modeling appropriate coping behaviors, but then also, making sure that if you are feeling overly anxious about sending your kids out there in the world, that you’re managing that yourself,” she said. “You might need to do something to manage that anxiety, not in front of your child. There’s that balance because we know kids are always watching.”
She then talked about the importance of knowing and following the CDC guidelines and talking through those guidelines with their child to ensure he or she knows what to expect.
“Parents, when I say these are the words that you should say to your children, it’s important that you say these words to yourself as well. Let yourself know that you can handle this. You may not have all the information. None of us do, and that’s okay. We’ll adjust as needed and continue to march forward. Make sure that we are as safe as possible by following the guidelines, doing what is necessary for our family, what makes us feel comfortable,” she remarked.
Coping with stress and anxiety
There are positive and negative ways to deal with stress and anxiety. How parents cope can affect how children learn to cope.
“We want you to figure out when you’re feeling stressed,” Lewis said. “A lot of the time, we know and recognize the signs and symptoms, and we do whatever we can to make them go away. But what we want to highlight is, there are some things that we call unhealthy coping. You’re still coping with it, but it’s not the healthiest thing to do. For adults and parents, we say we want you to stay away from trying to utilize drugs and alcohol to claim yourself. We want you to focus more so on the healthy ways of coping.”
She explained that this might be doing meditation or deep breathing, going for a run or anything relaxing. Lewis urged parents to do something that is positive for the body and brain, and brings a sense of claim.
“Another unhealthy way of coping is avoiding the issue or not paying attention or attending to things that need to get done. As a parent, it might be easy to feel overwhelmed and stressed and you’re just not going to think about these things and you’re going to go do your own thing and ignore the issue. That may not be the best thing for your family. That may not be the best thing for you because you’re dropping the ball on certain things that need to get done. In general, we have to find what coping strategies work for yourself but that are healthy for you and your family,” she explained.
A positive way to deal with anxiety and stress is meditation.
“Meditation, in general, is super helpful for children in the classroom, for us at home, just to help us refocus; however, it can be hard to do. I would suggest practicing daily,” she stated. “There are so many apps out there and guided meditation practices online. You can do this and set a timer, maybe just a few minutes each day. Maybe when you wake up, that’s when you want to try. The more that you do it, the more you practice it, the easier it becomes, but it’s a process.” You might have to start with a five-minute meditation or maybe a two-minute meditation and build yourself up to doing longer periods of time, and that’s okay … The more you practice it, the easier it gets for you and the more helpful it can be and become.”
The fight or flight response is a reaction to the brain’s perception of an immediate threatening situation, according to Lewis.
“This transition to school might elicit that response for a lot of kids,” she noted. “Once we’re feeling anxious, our brain is activated, we’re in a dangerous situation, we need to protect ourselves. An easy example would be on that first day of school and maybe the child doesn’t know anyone in the classroom. Walking in, they may all of sudden feel their heart racing and they might feel butterflies in their stomach and they’re feeling really scared and there’s no immediate threat in their environment. But what they are thinking is, ‘I don’t know anyone. I don’t know who I’m going to sit next to. Who am I going to talk to? Mom is going to leave me.’ All these anxious thoughts that are occurring and then our fight or flight response is activated,” she stated.
Lewis explained that when the fight or flight response is activated, people must learn to calm the system down. She provided the tips like deep breathing and/or closing your eyes and thinking of a calm place. Lewis stated that once the body is feeling calmer, the person is able to use the prefrontal part of the brain, which will allow them to think through helpful thoughts in the situation and use problem-solving decision-making.
Approaching the conversation
“If you know your child well enough to know what stresses them out, gently approach the conversation,” Lewis stated. “As an example, express to your child ‘I know this is a stressful period of time. Let’s talk a little bit about that.’ Even if your child is not doing much talking, again this goes back to, as a parent, you can [be a] model.
“As an example, ‘I’m feeling a little worried about this. Let’s talk about what it might look like. Are you feeling worried? Do you have any concerns?’ If they are having a really hard time communicating that with you and depending on their age, sometimes we like for kids to write out what’s going on, journal a little bit.”
Parents can have their children begin journaling to track their thoughts and feelings each day. A conversation can develop from what they are writing down. She suggested the use of another sibling to start the process of communication if the child continues to have a difficult time sharing their thoughts and feelings with the parent.
Lewis added that parents should have a conversation with their child and suggested parents say, ‘It seems you may be worried about this. What are your thoughts on it?’ She explained that engaging the child in the conversation is helpful.
Impact on children who learn differently
Lewis stated that there is currently a lot of ongoing research on the impact of COVID-19 and the pandemic on children. As children head back to school and transition to being in person with other children, where most of the children will be wearing masks, researchers will be able to see more of the impact of masks. The full impact of masks and how they are affecting children may not be known for several years.
Wearing masks has been a big change from what children were used to doing in the past and can cause additional difficulties for children who learn differently.
Children that previously had a difficult time reading facial expressions may find it more difficult to read expressions; specifically, making it more difficult for the child to read how their classmates are responding to them. This could potentially impact their learning, their ability to focus in the classroom and make social engagement with their peers more challenging, according to Lewis.
For children who have ADHD, Lewis encouraged parents to have them focus on organization, planning and scheduling. She stressed that it will be important to complete walk-throughs with the child to show them what the school day may look like. Parent should also inform the teacher of the child’s diagnosis and work with the teacher to come up with a plan of how to manage the child in the classroom.
For children who have difficulty managing anxiety, it is important for parents to help them feel like they can handle the transition to school and the stressors that pop up. She suggested teaching children strategies similar to deep breathing and shifting their thinking and not entertain anxious thoughts, validating their thoughts and engaging them in the plan to address or handle their concerns. She cautioned parents against avoiding their child’s concerns.
“The biggest thing is not letting your child stay home if they tell you they are really anxious and their upset and behavioral, you may see them acting out, but we don’t want to reinforce that fear. We want to talk to them about it and come up with a plan on how we’re going to manage it, and that can be the deep breathing strategies. That’ll be the helpful thoughts. Helping them recognize when they are having anxious, unhelpful thoughts,” Lewis said. “I think it’s also important to encourage kids to write out their worries. That can be a strategy. If they are feeling anxious throughout the day, you can tell them to write in their little journal. Give them a book to bring to school where they can write things down. Or if it’s at home, it might be easy for them to access their tablet. Or if they want to write as well and just track those thoughts and plan through, ‘how do we address these different things.’”
“The biggest thing would be to follow the CDC guidelines and best wishes for the school year.”