Now that back-to-school time is really here, some kids are going to be setting foot into classrooms for the first time in over a year. That’s a reality that might be hard to face at first. Even kids who were in school in person last year are bound to encounter changes this fall, whether it’s a much larger group of classmates, a different kind of schedule, or different rules about face masks, social distancing, and hygiene. We turned to Dr. Khadijah Watkins, Associate Director of the MGH Clay Center for Healthy Young Minds, to help us learn how to prepare kids for a return to a back-to-school routine.
What to Expect from the Return to Routines
We’ve been talking to a number of experts this summer about all the different facets of transitioning from pandemic life to a more cautiously “normal” routine. Some of what we’ve heard is that it’s not just hard to get back into the swing of things — it actually might bring on some real mental health challenges for parents and kids. What should parents expect as kids prepare to go back to school?
KW: Some of the challenges won’t come out until you start to prepare. I think the best way to know what to expect is to start to prepare early. Change, for some kids, will be what triggers the anxiety. Start getting back on a schedule, which might be hard if back-to-school is still a few weeks away, but try to start to get on some sort of schedule and routine that will mimic the school schedule. Something that will have a fairly consistent bedtime, wake-up time, and so on. All of the things that provide structure and organization to the day will be helpful.
As you’re preparing and getting back on schedule, start having those conversations about going back to school. Listen to what they’re worried about. Is it keeping up with the work? Re-engaging with friends and worries about whether they will fit in or be accepted? Are they worrying about what it will be like to be back in school all day and not with their parents anymore? Anxiety will probably sound a lot like what-ifs.
Pay attention to their patterns. Look for changes in their sleep patterns or eating habits, or changes in their baseline demeanor. Maybe you have a naturally jovial kid who’s suddenly become a moodier kid, or you see a change in their interest in things they are usually interested in. Those are signs you need to look deeper into, and if you have significant concerns, you can reach out to your child’s doctor for help.
I think one of the hard things is knowing how to respond to those what-ifs you mentioned. Sometimes the scenarios kids come up with can sound so unrealistic to parents, or so farfetched, that the automatic reaction is to say something like “Oh, that won’t happen” or “That’s silly, don’t worry about that.” I’m guessing that’s not the best response. What should parents say instead?
It sometimes can be difficult trying to differentiate between what’s normal and what’s over-anxious thinking, especially if you have kids who are already prone to anxiety. You want to validate their thoughts and worries. At the same time, parents need to keep it in perspective for them. There’s so much information out there that they are getting from news, friends, and other adults. Be aware of where their information is coming from, so you can contextualize it. As much as you can, you want to correct misinformation or misconceptions. When kids are left to put together their own information, it’s usually worse than if you help guide them. Maybe you can go online together and research some of their concerns together.
You may feel like the what-ifs are really outlandish, but it’s important to pay attention to your body language. Kids pick up on your cues. It’s okay, as a parent, to have a not-great initial response. You can always back up after saying “that’s ridiculous” and try again. We’re human and we can make mistakes, there’s room to repair and start the conversation over. When you try again, you can say something like “Where did you get that information? What makes you think that? I can see why you’d be worried about this, but let’s back up and think about it.” Understand that the way children’s minds are working, some of the ideas and worries they have might not be so far-fetched. They need us to have the dialogue and help them fact-find in a supportive way that allows them to be part of the problem-solving team.
Kids need to feel they have agency and autonomy and the confidence that they have the tools to come up with answers and solutions themselves. Especially with anxiety, it’s really important that they feel comfortable that they can manage without their parents or even other people or external things and that they are able to rely on themselves to self-soothe. A lot of schools have put additional safety measures into place around lunch, ventilation systems, outdoor learning and activities, to help minimize risk. You can put those things out there and remind kids that things will change, as we’ve seen this year, but here are all the things we’re all doing to work together to create a safe environment. Then ask “What would make you feel safe? What information would make you feel more comfortable going back to school?”
It’s also important to be honest right now that there is still a degree of uncertainty. You might say “We don’t know 100 percent, but I’m communicating with your school, or keeping up with the guidance, or I’m in touch with your doctors. We’re going to work together as a team and do our best to make sure that you’re safe and we’re safe, because we all want to be safe.”
How to Keep Tabs on Back-to-School Mental Health
Besides listening for the what-ifs and paying attention to sleeping and eating, what are some other ways parents can check in on kids’ mental health when everyone goes back to school? I’m especially wondering about parents of older kids, tweens and teens, because sometimes the ways that we might try to check in on how they’re doing come across as intrusive, and then the communication can shut down instead of opening up.
When they’re younger, everything is on the table and they need you more. As teenagers, you become less relevant in terms of their circle of support, and their peers become more of an outlet for them. It really is a challenge.
Most of it goes back to having conversations regularly and frequently. If we talk about things all the time, then it’s part of our normal way of checking in, as opposed to only talking about certain things when we think there’s something wrong. That can put them on the defensive. Maybe at dinner every night we talk about the rose, thorn and bud so we’re all sharing regularly, and it’s not just me trying to find out about you. It normalizes talking about feelings and fears taking away the shame and doubt. The thought that we shouldn’t talk about these feelings is removed.
Trust your gut and your instincts. You’re the expert on your kids. You know when they’re not eating the favorite dish you made, or when they’re not hanging out with their friends. If you aren’t paying attention to their patterns, you should start. Maybe they no longer want to play sports or they want to quit the team that they have been on for years. These are cues. I mean, could you decide that you no longer want to do dance? Sure, of course you can. But in the context of other changes like no longer eating and seeming sad, makes it more concerning.
We all want to be respectful of adolescents’ privacy, but I come from a different way of thinking, which is that there is a difference between privacy and secrets. Secrecy is usually shrouded in shame and embarrassment and doubt. We keep things secret because we’re ashamed or we don’t want to get into trouble. But as parents, we’re trying to break down stigma. We want to model that “I’m okay talking about this, and it’s normal to talk about it.” It’s okay to have concerns. We all have struggles.
Some families are less comfortable with sharing than others. Is there such a thing as oversharing or over communicating about this stuff? And what about the idea some parents may have that talking about mental health concerns might make things worse?
Yes, we want them to share freely, but as parents, we also want to manage our own emotions and reactions. There are kids who will feel like “Mom and Dad are struggling, so if I tell them I’m struggling, it will burden them. I don’t want to hurt them by telling them I’m depressed, because they might feel upset or angry.” We don’t want our kids to feel like they have to take care of our feelings, because if they feel like we’re not in control of our emotions, then we won’t be able to help them with their emotions. We need to be careful in sharing, and always add that we have a plan. Let them know that we know how we’re going to get past this struggle.
When you do have concerns about your child’s mental health, don’t be afraid to use specific words. “You seem depressed. Have you had thoughts of hurting yourself?” “Are you having suicidal thoughts?” Despite what many parents may think, those words will not give them ideas they haven’t had. You have to ask those questions directly, so you know how to respond.
How to Manage the Return to Back-to-School Routines With Positivity
You’ve given us some great tips and tools for navigating tough topics like our kids’ mental health. Now let’s talk about some ways that families can try to keep things more positive, to stay connected and maybe boost everyone’s mental health and wellbeing. What are some of your suggestions for fun, engaging things families might do to stay bonded during this stressful back-to-school time?
We are all stretched thin and stressed out. It’s okay to just have fun without an agenda! Conversation will come naturally. We don’t have to force it all the time. Play a card game, take a bike ride, a road trip — whatever you enjoy as a family. It can be fun to daydream and plan together. Have a planning session about what activities you all may want to do. “What do you think would be fun?” “Anywhere you would like to go?” “What’s something we have not done in a while that may be fun to do again?” Let everyone have input into what that would look like, and maybe take turns if the responses are really different across different family members.
We also do the gratitude jar at dinner a couple of times a week, and most days, the peak and pit of our day or rose and thorn. These exercises help kids begin to recognize and share that there are good things that happen and there are things that are not so great, and we’re all here together and we survived it.
Back-to-school is always a reset of routines, but it’s especially challenging this year, since so many families totally changed their home lives and schedules to accommodate the pandemic. You talked earlier in the interview about the importance of getting back to routines as a way to help kids transition and keep an eye on their wellbeing. What tips do you have to make things easier?
I think the key is making sure that we don’t wait until two weeks before school starts to reestablish routines. But also, you may not want to make all the changes at once. I think if we have to prioritize, think about changing wake time first. Bedtime will follow because it will readjust automatically if we’re getting them up earlier. But if you’re going to get kids up at a certain time, then there has to be something for them to do. You don’t have to plan and organize their entire day on your own, but rather make them part of a team creating a menu of things they can choose from if they’re bored.
We should pay attention to prioritizing physical activity and healthy habits, like healthy eating habits, good personal hygiene habits, healthy sleep habits, screen time in moderation, and regular exercise and physical activity. Anything you can do together as a family will get bigger buy-in. Telling someone to run on a treadmill is far less fun than if we all go together to run along the river, or go hiking, or biking. What can we do to make these healthy habits fun?
And as the school year really gets underway, pace yourself. Some of us have learned during the pandemic that we were too busy. Maybe you felt too overscheduled or that the kids were signed up for too many activities. We can be reflective around our priorities and values, and reassess and reorganize things. Talking about that process can be helpful. We don’t have to sign up for a lifetime of football, we can just sign up for a season. Then if you decide you don’t love it, it’s okay to try something else. You want to avoid the sense of failure when you make a change or decide not to do something you committed to doing before.
We can’t let you go without asking our favorite question: What would you ask at the family dinner table during this back-to-school season?
- What are you most excited about, and what are you most worried about?
- Is there anything you think I could do to be helpful with the transition back to school?
- How can you feel more comfortable in your skin back at school? How can you feel safe?
- How can I help you reconnect with your friends?