This school year, it’s time to color outside of the lines. Not only did the last year mean huge restrictions for kids, but even before that the increasing use of social media, extra curriculars, competitive schooling, and more means kids have felt the mounting pressure to do well and fit in. And we think this year, back to school should be less about getting back to normal—and more about embracing the joy of doing things your own unique and colorful way.
The fall is a time of anticipation, excitement, and new starts. It’s also a time to reconnect. It’s a time to get back into the swing of things. Those are all good things. But back-to-school can also be a stressful time, especially for kids whose anticipation may manifest itself as shyness, activeness, or anxiousness.
If you’re seeing this in your kids as the new school year starts—and perhaps it’s something you’ve not necessarily dealt with before—you may be at a loss. But here’s what some of our favorite parenting experts have to say about helping your kid cope.
Of course, as with any mental health concern with children, do visit a professional if you feel the situation warrants it. They’ll be able to aid in your unique situation and understand the child’s needs better, as it’s more direct.
If your kid is being antisocial or shy…
Listen, social re-entry anxiety is real, for adults and kids alike. Not to mention, starting a new school year—coming out of a pandemic or not—is cause enough of some kids to get jitters about making friends, fitting in, and finding their community. “Some kids struggled to join in before the pandemic and may have sunk further into their own bubbles. The wall of opposition—shrugs, eye-rolling, or tantrums—is usually a sign that your child is struggling to surface in this brave new world.” says parenting expert Caroline Maguire, M.Ed.
Social isolation has probably meant that some kids may have missed developing key social learnings, too. This may result in them feeling as though they don’t know how to navigate a conversation, reach out to others, and therefore, retreat.
So the first thing to do is to identify where the pain points are.
“We can all remember a time when we had to cross a room to speak to people we didn’t know or felt a nuanced and subtle slight. Due to social distancing, children have missed some of the natural progressions—the small and big social milestones that help us learn to connect. Your child may have struggled before COVID with fitting in, but now is the opportunity to identify which key social-emotional skills to work on such as chatting, approaching others, keeping a game going, reading the room,” says Maguire.
Work with your child to find where they feel they are struggling—be an empathetic listener while doing so—and then help them build confidence in those areas. “Pair the social-emotional skills you are working on with low-key, fun opportunities to build confidence,” she says. “There are valuable social skills that come from interacting in a less-structured environment. Make this practice a game by including supportive opportunities with close friends, family, cousins, younger or older children, or a group.” The key is to practice these skills in low-stakes situations—there’s a lot of social pressure at school, so you’ll want to work on these skills in places where they know they won’t be judged—and even better, be encouraged!
If your kid is acting out after class…
Because kids are still developing, and haven’t fully learned how to deal with their emotions, you may find them acting out at home when they get home from school if they’ve had a bad day. And given the stress of the new school year, you may find this happening more lately.
If so, you’re not alone and it’s not uncommon—even in the best of times. The good news is that there’s plenty of techniques to help your kids deal with any residual negative emotions that came bubbling up in the school day.
The first one is what writer and parenting expert Michelle Icard calls the “try this first” approach. “When your kid is happy and relaxed, ask them to make a list of things that help them feel better when they are anxious or upset,” she says, noting that this list of activities—which can range from reading or meditating to playing basketball or watching YouTube—will act as your kid’s go-to list of hobbies that put them in a better headspace for when they are upset.
“Try This First gives you something to do and say. Imagine your child comes home in tears after a rough day. You ask what’s wrong, but they can’t, or won’t, articulate,” she says. “Rather than shouldering the burden of having to uncover this mystery and then figuring out what might actually make it better, you could say, ‘I’m sorry you are having a tough time. Why don’t you look at your list and choose one thing to do for the next 20 minutes? Come find me when you’re done, and I’ll be here to talk.’”
Now your child has some time to decompress, do something that brings them joy, get their mind off of what’s bothering them, and then allows for more thoughtful discussion on why they are upset.
If your kid has COVID concerns…
So many of us thought this year was going to look far closer to “normal” than it is turning out to be. That’s largely due to the Delta variant, concerns around vaccination, and mask mandates. Every school system, state, and area is different—making it difficult to give nuanced advice. Additionally, we don’t want to tell you what choices are going to be right for your family and individual case. (Everyone’s situation is different!) But we can relay what the experts know about the new strain, as well as tips on helping kids cope with the ongoing pandemic.
In terms of understanding the data around the Delta variant, we turned to Emily Oster, Ph.D., a parenting expert and professor of economics at Brown University who penned the upcoming book, The Family Firm, which focuses on parents’ decision-making during the early school years. (Listen to her mindbodygreen podcast episode!) She notes that in general, kids are considered low-risk for serious illness with COVID-19. In terms of the Delta variant, “It’s a more contagious virus, which means it is spreading more among all people, but it is not spreading relatively more among kids,” says Oster. She cites evidence from the UK, which shows that the positive test rate for unmasked (the unmasked part is often not reported) children up to age 11 did increase a little bit at the height of the Delta surge (two percent, to be exact), but not nearly as high as the positive test rates in young adults (who are more likely to be vaccinated). “We’re seeing a lot of evidence suggesting it’s the same kind of story with kids—that they’re very low-risk for mortality from this [virus],” says Oster.
So what can you do to protect kids? Make sure the adults in their lives are vaccinated. “The best way to protect [kids] is to surround them with vaccinated adults,” says Oster. As she elaborates in her newsletter, “Household transmission is a much more common vector for children, meaning vaccinating people in the household is your most important prevention strategy.”
If you want more advice from her, do check out our recent article detailing the conversation.