Starting a new school year under normal circumstances can be challenging – the combination of new routines, workload and social pressures can be stressful for children.
But for yet another back-to-school season, students — some of whom are learning in-person for the first time in a year and a half — are also trying to attend school during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some high school and high school sophomores enter buildings they’ve never been before. Students are setting foot on campuses that may look and feel different than they used to because of the COVID-19 protocols.
“I think — especially for high school and high school students — we’re just seeing a lack of connection to school,” Janine Domingues, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, tells Yahoo Life. “There’s a lot of fear and a certain amount of sadness around, ‘Am I even going to like it when I’m there? Because I haven’t liked school for a year and a half.’”
But despite the changes and challenges students may face this school year, there are steps that preteens and teens — along with their families — can take to reduce stress and anxiety levels.
Social anxiety often runs high in teens, perhaps even more so after months of isolation and missed opportunities to connect with their peers. That’s why experts say now more than ever that students need to reach out to others.
“With both high school and college students, I really encourage them to think about making some kind of connection with at least one person in every aspect of your life,” Vanessa K. Jensen, a child psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic, tells Yahoo Life. “If you can sit with them and just say ‘hello’ a few times, it can give you a little more sense of balance and security.”
Jensen suggests students join a club, sign up for a sport, or simply go to college at a student center where there are other preteens and teens. Jensen warns that children who continue to isolate themselves may find that their fears quickly escalate, leaving them feeling invisible. But in reality, these students are not alone.
“Remember, everyone is in the same boat as you,” says Jensen. “And most people are just as hesitant as you are to get in touch. But if no one takes the first step, it will never happen. So getting in touch – difficult as it may be – is extremely helpful.”
Everyone finds comfort in different things. It could be a favorite song, a worn-out rock from a beach vacation, a much-loved piece of comfortable clothing, or a photo of a close friend on a key ring. Kids of all ages need these things too — little items that can help them feel safe and calm. “Those little symbols can take on a lot more meaning than we realize,” explains Jensen. “Any little symbol your child puts in his pocket or hangs on his backpack that makes him think, ‘Oh yeah, that was a good day.’”
When students feel lonely or stressed, having a self-soothing kit can help them move to a quieter space. Domingues says it’s important to understand that the purpose of these items isn’t to make the anxiety or stress go away, but to make those emotions more manageable. “The more you try to make uncomfortable feelings go away, the more frustrated you become,” she explains. “So the goal is to lower the intensity and kind of embrace how you feel. Then you will get through the day.”
Use the “raindrop theory”
As a parent, it’s not always easy to know when a preteen or teen is stressed. A student’s questions about their day can be answered with one-word answers. So how can parents help their teen or teen with their fears if they don’t even know what their kids are feeling or thinking?
Jensen recommends trying what she calls the “raindrop theory.” It’s a smart way to spread bits of a conversation when the time is right. “When you’re in the car, it’s a great time because you’re not looking at each other,” she advises. “That’s a good time to bring up some details that they casually brought up — even if it seems like a small thing, it’s just something to get the conversation going.”
This could involve asking about a friend or a teacher or even telling a crazy story about your teenage years. Jensen says any time parents can get the family together at the dinner table, keeping the conversation positive can also help teens open up. “Try to focus on things that were interesting, things that were funny,” Jensen says, “and don’t make it time to drill the kids.”
Set an example
Sometimes the most powerful tool is not what a parent says, but what they do. Domingues urges parents to take stock of their own emotions around the new school year. “Teenagers and young adults — although they may not say this to us directly — feel like a parent or caregiver,” Domingues says. “So if we go into the school year anxious and talking a lot about our concerns,” that can offend your kids. “How we deal with our own emotional experience will really set the tone for this school year,” Domingues says.
That doesn’t mean parents should act like everything’s okay, Domingues explains. It’s normal to worry when kids go back to school and transparency can go a long way. “Saying that and validating it by saying things like, ‘The year can be weird, and that’s okay. I’m here to talk about it if you need anything,” Domingues suggests. the same language and model that ability to deal with it.”
Meanwhile, schools in the US are also doing their best by putting children’s mental health at the top of their priority list. Arizona, Oregon and Virginia recently passed bills allowing students to participate mental health days. In Utah, children have access to “wellness roomswhere they can decompress if they feel overwhelmed. Chicago Public Schools – the third largest school district in the country – is Invest $24 million in mental health programs for their students and staff.
“One of the silver linings for me about the pandemic of the past year and a half is talking about mental health in a healthier way,” Domingues shares. “We’re all in it together, kind of navigating what’s going to happen, knowing we’ve been through this before, and hoping we’ve learned some tricks and tips from the past to make this school year a little smoother.”
Read more from Yahoo Life:
Would you like to receive lifestyle and wellness news in your inbox? Register here for the Yahoo Life newsletter.