A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Back to school and mental health: What parents should know

Back to school kids image

Children are heading back to school, and this year, like last year, will be one of the most unique and challenging school years in American history.

Children are heading back to school, and this year, like last year, will be one of the most unique and challenging school years in American history. With the continued spread of COVID-19 and the delta variant in particular, there have already been schools shut down across the country because of rising case counts.

Students will continue to have to navigate changing masking policies, possibly online learning and distance from their friends. Conversely, some children who have been socially isolated over the course of the pandemic, are now heading back to the highly social environment of school.

Considering all of this, it’s important for parents to be aware of how their children are feeling not just physically, but mentally.

A tumultuous time of year

“Going back to school is a tumultuous time of year even when we aren’t in the middle of a pandemic,” said Dr. Samantha Eastberg, child/adolescent post-doctoral fellow at Marshfield Clinic Health System. “We have to transition back to regular routines, going to bed on time and getting up on time, school work and extracurricular activities. During the pandemic we’ve had this extra layer of difficulty added on top of all that.”

A study published late last year by JAMA Network Open found for adults, “depression symptom prevalence was more than 3-fold higher during the COVID-19 pandemic than before.”

JAMA Pediatrics found similar results in a study on children, reporting that, “the prevalence of depression and anxiety symptoms during COVID-19 have doubled, compared with pre-pandemic estimates.”

What can parents do?

Dr. Eastberg said it is important for parents during this time to model behavior for their children. Parents can help show their children how to be flexible, forgiving and adaptable in a uniquely challenging time.

It is also important for parents to listen intently to what their children tell them and to validate what they are feeling, Dr. Eastberg said. She gave the following example of a good way to show your children you respect their feelings and you want to support them:

Instead of saying: I can remember what the stress of starting school was like, but you’ll be fine.

Try saying: I can remember what the stress of starting school was like, and how can I help you with this?

“Saying ‘and’ instead of ‘but’ is more validating,” Dr. Eastberg said. “It’s a way to show your child you care about how they feel and you want to help them address those feelings productively.”

Despite all the unique challenges of this upcoming year, Dr. Eastberg said the children and adolescents she works with largely have the same concerns they always do – how to fit in, what to wear on the first day of school, how much they will like their teachers. Part of that, Dr. Eastberg said, may be that children have adapted to the new normal of the pandemic.

If you have questions or concerns about your child’s mental health, or general questions about navigating this school year safely, talk with their primary care or behavioral health provider.

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