How Can We Support Young People’s Mental Health As They Return To School?

Labor Day is fast approaching, which means a return to school for many. The beginning of the school year is a time filled with excitement, anticipation, nervousness, and other emotions.

But this year, beyond the normal stresses, we face the uncertainties of an ongoing global pandemic. Most young people and parents I’ve spoken with are feeling more anxious than usual.

Some families have been managing with homeschooling for the past 18 months. Others worry about their unvaccinated kids becoming sick. Still others worry about mask mandates.

With fewer distractions and less bullying, remote learning has helped some children thrive. But others may have fallen behind because they’ve been flying under the radar or have been exposed to added stressors at home.

As parents, we face pressure to make the “right” parenting choices, especially now that we’re dealing with our children’s physical and emotional health. These uncharted waters can feel overwhelming.

Amid this turmoil, I’ve tried to be a light that helps to guide my kids safely to shore. It’s a lot to take on, as the tides keep changing. I manage by being open and honest with my kids. We can’t control what young people hear, so it’s important to present them with the information they need to stay safe. Keep it simple. Explain your decisions. And spell out your expectations for your children.

For example: “Yes, you can go to an outdoor gathering with a few friends, but I won’t let you go to that party because it’s too risky” or “I expect you to wear your mask when we visit grandma because we want to keep her safe.”

Over this past year and a half, adults and kids alike have been feeling unsafe and unstable. As children transition to re-enter school, expect some distress and worry during the first few weeks. These feelings may be intensified now when children are being asked to do many new (or forgotten) things all at once. Energy levels and emotional reserves will be strained. During this pandemic, many young people have had limited in-person social interaction. Required to re-learn how to navigate social dynamics in person, kids may feel emotionally drained.

Everyone handles stress differently. But there are some common things to watch for: Some kids may have physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomachaches. Some may seem more agitated, while others may become more withdrawn. Notice the changes. Some of this is to be expected. 

But as adults, we need to listen first. Don’t jump in fast and try to fix things or try to put their concerns into perspective. Step one must be to let the young person be heard. Only then, discuss ways to alleviate stress and to strengthen coping skills.

But what if there’s a major change in behavior that doesn’t dissipate after a few weeks? What if your child withdraws more and more, or refuses to engage in typical activities, or appears progressively more distressed? That’s a red flag, and parents may want to consider seeking help at that point.

Fun back to school rituals can create a sense of normalcy into the school transitional process.  For example, my kids love to choose first day-of-school outfits and some fun, colorful folders.

I’ve also started limiting screen time and getting them into bed earlier than our summer routine.

If you’re concerned about a student, reach out to their school or call the Association for Mental Health and Wellness’ Helpline at 631-471-7242, ext. 1388, or ext. 1389 for Spanish.

In addition, the New York State Office of Mental Health offers a video series entitled, “Back to School 2021” aimed at parents, caregivers, and students. It addresses concerns they’ve heard from students and families about going back to school while still facing the challenges of COVID-19.

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