Two Things to Say to a Child Returning to In-Person School (& Two You Should Avoid)

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Going back to school is always nerve-wracking, but this year may be extra scary. A lot of kids haven’t seen their peers in over year because of virtual learning, and that means all those first-day jitters are going to be amplified. And with the pandemic still making things uncertain, there’s sure to be some anxiety around going back to an in-person classroom.

That’s why we called on Lea Lis, MD, child psychiatrist and author of No Shame, to give us some advice on the best way to mitigate anxiety as children go back to school this year. Find out the two things to say to a child returning to in-person school and the two you should try to avoid.

Two Things You Should Definitely Say

 1. “What are you afraid of?”

If you notice your kid getting antsy around the prospect of being back at school, start by talking to them. “I would suggest that parents ask children what their anxieties are, because kids have anxiety about lots of different things,” advised Dr. Lis. “It could be something small like ‘Who am I going to sit with in the lunchroom?’ to something like, 'Will I die?’ You have to ask the questions and find where their anxiety stems from. Kids are resilient, but they have emotions without the coping skills to process them in a lot of ways.”

 2. “Here’s what you can do when you feel overwhelmed.”

So, it turns out, your kid is nervous about germs. Now it’s time to equip them with some coping tools for when they’re feeling anxious in class.

“You can try something called cognitive reframing,” says Dr. Lis. “Find out what their negative thoughts are and work to reframe those thoughts to become positive. If their fear is ‘I’ll get sick,’ the positive would be, ‘Even if I get sick, I won’t be sick for long and I’ll get better.’ It’s about changing those negative thoughts into more positive thoughts.” 

If that still doesn’t help, Dr. Lis suggests writing down the new thoughts in a list they can keep on the side of their bed. They can serve as positive affirmations for when the negative thoughts inevitably come creeping up again. 

Dr. Lis also recommends square breathing. Have your kid sit or stand with their back straight and body relaxed. Then, slowly inhale for five seconds, hold their breath for another five before exhaling for five seconds and holding again for five. (It’s a great stress reliever for adults, too.)

Two Things to Avoid

 1. Watching the news in front of them

With new information about COVID and its variants coming out on a daily basis, you naturally want to stay informed so you can make the best and safest decision for your family. However, it’s important to remember that your little humans are always listening, and overhearing some of those harrowing stats can be scary. “In general, kids don’t do well around fearmongering news broadcasts, so I’d advise that you stay away from that,” stated Dr. Lis. “I would also [refrain] from talking about people who got really sick in front of them and be aware that kids are always listening.”

 2. Passing on your personal anxiety

It’s no secret that kids are magnets for germs and with the pandemic still raging, it’s easy to get obsessive over hygiene. But Dr. Lis points out that you can reinforce the importance of proper protection and sanitization without instilling fear in your children’s tiny little hearts.

“You want to talk about handwashing and wearing masks whenever you can,” she explains. “But you don’t need to get too upset when their mask falls off, for example. Treat it as just another thing you have to teach them in order to keep themselves safe.” In other words, if Mikey forgets to put his mask back on after taking a water break, don’t panic and react like they’re being irresponsible on purpose. A gentle reminder will get the point across just as well.

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Resident Hufflepuff, Beyonce historian, self-proclaimed tea sommelier

Steph is a native of Zimbabwe who is both enamored and genuinely baffled by the concept of silent letters. From 2020 to 2022, she served as Associate Editor at PureWow covering...