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This month, thousands of schoolchildren throughout Vermont will return to full-time, in-person classroom learning, many for the first time since the start of the pandemic. In addition to the typical jitters that come with starting a new school year, many kids and parents are feeling heightened anxiety about COVID-19, the spread of the more contagious Delta variant and the fact that children under 12 cannot get vaccinated yet.
Dr. David Rettew is a child psychiatrist and associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine. Here's his advice for helping kids manage the transition.
KIDS VT: Have you seen more children experiencing anxiety due to their return to in-person school this fall?
DAVID RETTEW: Across the board, we're seeing more kids struggling with their mental health: anxiety, depression, eating disorders. One of the tricky issues when it comes to a reluctance to reengage is that many parents are feeling pretty anxious, too. Sometimes it can be hard to disentangle whether it's the child's anxieties that are the driving factor or the parent's.
KVT: What advice do you give them?
DR: First, the key is to distinguish between your kid's anxiety and your own. A parent's anxiety can feed a child's anxiety. If you're a parent and recognize that you're a little uncomfortable about everything that's going on, but your goal is for your child to go back to school, then communicate those concerns about COVID-19 and the Delta variant to people other than your child. Obviously, you still want to adhere to safe public-health practices, but you shouldn't harp on your own anxieties around your child.
Also, be aware of the media that your child is exposed to. If you're the type of parent who likes to have CNN playing all the time, that could be fueling your child's anxiety. Communicate truthful reassurance as much as possible. Don't make huge promises and blanket statements. But you can say, "In Vermont, at least 85 percent of people who are eligible have received at least one dose of a vaccine."
KVT: How do parents differentiate between a child's normal returning-to-school jitters and something more serious?
DR: One way is to look at what's gone on during the summer. A possible proxy is kids' experiences going to camps. For a kid who has the routine level of anxiety — "Well, this is new. I don't know what to expect" — but they still do it, that's probably a good sign that they'll be able to jump to the next grade easily. However, if your child has been saying, "I'm not going to camp! I don't want to do this!" that should be a pretty loud indicator that the transition this fall is also going to be challenging.
KVT: Are there risks in pushing kids too hard to return to school — or in not pushing them hard enough?
DR: We talk about this a lot in parenting anxious kids. There's this sweet spot that you have to find, and it's different for different kids.
If you completely back off and never nudge your kid to face what they're nervous about, the mountain gets bigger and bigger, every step feels scarier and scarier, and ultimately it never happens. Staying in your safe bubble only reinforces it and makes it harder to break out of. Then again, if you push too hard and you put your child into a situation where they're going to crash and burn, then you just set them up for failure and confirm their worst fears.
It's hard to make global statements that apply to all kids, but it can be helpful for parents to have that frame of mind and try to find that balance.
KVT: Has kids' increased screen time during the pandemic affected their ability to transition back to in-person learning and interactions?
DR: It's been pretty well documented by now that many kids have had a lot more screen time than is healthy during the pandemic. There are legitimate reasons for it, and I don't feel like we need to be judging parents at this point. What the heck else would you have your kids do? They were staying home, they couldn't play with other kids and their parents had to work. How many options did they have?
But now, as more things are opening up and kids can be around others their own age, we can't just accept the additional screen time as the new normal. For a lot of kids, it's worthwhile to nudge things back and put reasonable limits in place, because screens are an easy out. They can occupy an unbelievable amount of time if you let them. So, let's not point fingers and make parents feel bad. But let's adopt some strategies to bring things back into balance. If that results in a kid at home saying, "It's so boring here!" that's OK. It may be something to get kids outside and engaged more.
KVT: Where else can parents seek help?
DR: The schools are very much aware that a subpopulation of students are going to struggle. They're ready to help, and they're ready to be flexible, in ways that they may not have been before. So, it may make sense to reach out to the school in advance and not wait for the first day of school to get help.