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A Lesson in Stress: How to cope with back-to-school concerns

Mother - child doing schoolwork
(Source: Adobe Stock)

Whether a student is sitting at a school desk or taking lessons virtually, school is going to look different this fall for students in all grade levels.

According to Dr. Delene Musielak, a pediatrician with St. Luke’s Hospital, the stress caused by going back to school is having an impact on the mental health of both students and parents. In fact, it’s been having an impact since shutdowns began in early spring. 

“I have seen an increase in anxiety, depression, insomnia during the pandemic for both parents and kids,” Musielak said. “It’s been pretty bad, and unfortunately, patients that already have underlying depression or anxiety or insomnia, their symptoms have gone up.”

But Musielak said there are steps parents and students can take to address these concerns at every stage of the school experience.

Academic stress 

According to Musielak, one of the most important aspects in addressing academic stress is for parents to facilitate and open dialogue with their children about the child’s preferred way of learning.

“I think it’s really important to remember that there is no right decision whether your child should do virtual learning, a hybrid or in-person learning,” Musielak said. “Every family has different resources and is in a different situation.”

For middle and high school students, Musielak recommends that students and parents maintain open conversations about what learning methods are or are not working, and then adjust the academic plan accordingly.

“Check in with them,” Musielak said. “Ask, ‘Hey, how are things? Is this the way that you’d like to continue to learn?’” 

For younger students, maintaining a steady routine can help keep kids on track. This means consistent bedtimes and even breaks so they’re less tempted to act out during activities.

“Kids thrive off routine,” Musielak said. “Especially for kids that have underlying depression, and even more so, ADHD. Sticking to what they’ve known, and how their schedule has been, is also important.”

Stressed teen doing virtual learning
For some students, virtual learning may cause more stress than in-person lessons. (Source: Adobe Stock)

Parental frustration 

One recommendation Musielak gives stressed parents is to assess their situation and remember what they did in spring to cope with the sudden addition of virtual learning.

“A lot of parents have voiced that, during the springtime when this all started and the majority of schools went to online learning, they learned how their children learned,” Musielak said. “Some parents realized, ‘Hey, my child does way better with online learning’ and some parents said, ‘I have a straight-A student and she is struggling with online learning’…it all goes back to having that open dialogue with your child.”

Parental frustration can also impact a child’s mental health because, according to Musielak, tension at home can add to personal trauma.

“Of course your genetics play a role, but your environment also plays a role,” Musielak said. “If they see that we’re panicking, they’re going to start panicking. It’s really important to stay calm during this time.”

Lack of socialization

Middle and high school students are the groups that most frequently express stress because of self-isolation and distancing, Musielak said. Middle school students are the group most prone to self-isolate for long periods of time.

“I think middle school is an age where kids are trying to figure out who they are because they’re going through so many physical changes,” Musielak said. “They do have a tendency to isolate a little more…and now, with the pandemic, everyone is expected to be isolated to some degree.”

For all ages, Musielak said that get-togethers on platforms like Zoom or Skype can help promote healthy and active social engagement.

“Screen time when you’re on a Skype or Zoom call is different from being glued to the television or a video game,” Musielak said. 

For elementary students who might become over-excited at the prospect of seeing family or friends again, constant education and diligent reminders can help kids understand the situation without causing unnecessary fear.

“For younger kids, it’s saying, ‘Hey, there’s a germ going around, and we want to make sure we do X, Y and Z; keep your mask on, wash your hands, give air hugs,’” Musielak said. “We want to do it in a way where we’re not making them fearful. We’re making them diligent and more aware of their surroundings.”

Fear of the illness

While statistics and information about the COVID-19 pandemic remains ongoing, fear of the virus is still something that many ask about at their regular appointments, according to Musielak.

“One part is kids going back and being exposed to other children,” Musielak said, “And the other part is them coming back home and potentially exposing someone at home, especially if they have older grandparents or a younger sibling.”

For all ages, Musielak said the most constructive approach is to limit the amount of COVID-19 news per day and limit information to validated resources.

“For older kids, you’re able to tell them, ‘Hey, if you see something about (COVID-19) on Facebook … doublecheck and confirm that’s what’s happening,’” Musielak said. “You could give them a website or a specific news station. Better yet, have a little family time where you’re like, ‘Alright, let’s get our update on COVID for this week.’ Even the CDC recommends limiting the amount of time people should spend looking at news because that does increase individual fear about the pandemic.”

Musielak recommends that any mistakes or oversights be used as instances of education, not for reprimand. 

“I think one important thing is to not yell or reprimand kids, no matter how old they are,” Musielak said. “When they do something, I think it’s a perfect opportunity to educate them and say, ‘Be careful, don’t touch the handrail. We have to make sure we’re being safe, and we have to wash our hands.’ I think using those instances to educate them, because again, it can create fearful thoughts if someone is only yelling at them or reprimanding them.”

For more information on dealing with stress, visit www.drdelenemusielak.com.

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