Talking back to school and children’s mental health with the U of M

Back to school will bring additional stressors this year. Are there ways parents can help their child(ren) manage their stress?

Abi Gewirtz

MINNEAPOLIS/ST. PAUL - Minnesota schools will soon begin welcoming elementary, middle and high school students back to the classroom. However, no matter if that classroom is at a school or at home, COVID-19 is changing the ways students learn, socialize and experience the world.

Abigail Gewirtz, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Family Social Science, the Institute of Child Development, and the Institute for Translational Research in Children’s Mental Health. She shares how parents can help their child(ren) navigate the new school year amid a time of change and uncertainty.

Q: How can the COVID-19 pandemic affect a child’s, as well as their families’, overall well-being?

Prof. Gewirtz: The pandemic has affected the well-being of us all: adults and children. For kids, who in their typical lives don’t have much control, the added chaos and unpredictability of pandemic life can be very anxiety producing. Children, especially younger ones, understand the world through the bubble of the family. So when parents get stressed, kids do, too! What we know, though, is that parents can really help their children to cope with stress by nurturing their children’s emotions — or emotion coaching — as well as providing a sense of safety and stability by keeping up with important routines and rituals.

Q: How can parents navigate tough conversations about back to school and COVID-19 without causing additional stress or fear?


Prof. Gewirtz: First, manage your own stress. That’s easier said than done in these incredibly stressful times. But taking 10 seconds to breathe in deeply and breathe out even more deeply (and other stress-reduction strategies) will remind you that you have a choice about how to respond to whatever you are feeling when bad news hits. When you are feeling calmer, it’s going to be easier to focus on how your children are feeling. Conversations about difficult or scary things are a great opportunity for parents to coach their children’s emotions. Start by helping your child label and identify what s/he is feeling. You might do this by noticing their facial expressions, observing if they are crying that tears usually mean people are sad or anxious, etc. Then take time to validate their feelings.

For example, if your child tells you that her friend told her that her grandma is in the hospital with COVID-19, and she is worried about her, draw on your own experience as a child to validate that worry: “I remember when I was about your age and my grandma got really sick, and I was so worried about her.” Then listen to your child’s concerns. Often what we assume our kids are worried about is not what they actually are worried about. But only active listening will reveal that.

Finally, spend some time with your child helping her to address both her big emotions (e.g. anxiety, sadness, anger) and, if there’s a concrete problem, that, too. If your child is worried about her grandmother getting sick, for example, help her with strategies to calm herself, but also help her find ways to connect with her grandmother — videochat, bringing food over, sending letters. We all feel better when there’s something we can do so helping your child feel empowered to do something about her worries is a helpful coping strategy.

Q: Back to school will bring additional stressors this year. Are there ways parents can help their child manage their stress?

Prof. Gewirtz: Modify your expectations of not only your child, but also of what you can do! The burdens on parents these days are incredible — parents are expected to be workers, teachers, coaches, friends — and parents! Once you recognize and are able to moderate your own expectations, it’ll be much easier to help your child manage their stress. Kids are astute observers. Explicitly teaching your children to regulate their stress and their big emotions is also really important. Teach them belly breathing; the value of time outside, feeling the wind in their hair, watching the clouds in the sky. Have time set aside each day for conversations. And limit electronic devices!

Q: As school is an important factor in a child’s social and emotional development, how can parents assist their children in overcoming the pandemic’s isolating effect?

Prof. Gewirtz: For the many children who won’t be going back to school in-person, mitigating the physical isolation from friends is important. Parents need to decide what social interaction their children can have with others. This will vary widely depending on many factors related to parents’ and kids’ risk for contracting the coronavirus, health vulnerabilities, occupational hazards, etc. Whatever your rules are, make those clear to your children, and then problem-solve within those parameters. For example, if you have a neighborhood or family bubble, do what you can to have kids outside, and in interactions with those others in the bubble as much as possible, especially while the weather is still good. If you are okay with your child doing a fall sport, that’s a great way to foster interaction. But even a family bike ride or a walk in the park will help kids feel less isolated. For older children, beware of too much time spent in their rooms with their phones; they are a double edged sword. On the one hand, many teens will say that social media helps them feel more connected, but it’s also really important to be in the world, physically, and not just online.

Q: What does your research show about how traumatic events, like COVID-19, affect families and children?


Prof. Gewirtz: The good news is that children are resilient. As my colleague Ann Masten has noted, resilience is “ordinary magic” and most kids will bounce back once the pandemic is over. And they will do just fine even in these extraordinary and difficult circumstances. The hardest hit families and children will be those who were already struggling, for whom the pandemic heightens existing disparities in healthcare, education and socio-economics. Efforts such as community food drives, extra educational resources and racial justice initiatives will be crucial in addressing these disparities so that all children and their families have the opportunity to recover from this difficult period.

Abigail Gewirtz is a professor in the Department of Family Social Science and the Institute of Child Development in the College of Education and Human Development. Her expertise is in children’s resilience, parenting, trauma, and prevention and intervention research. Gewirtz is also the author of When the World Feels Like a Scary Place: Essential Conversations for Anxious Parents and Worried Kids (Workman Press, 2020).

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“Talking...with U of M” is a resource whereby University of Minnesota faculty answer questions on current and other topics of general interest.

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