Is your child anxious about going to school during a pandemic? Here’s how to talk about it

A teacher instructs his socially distant classroom.
Second grade teacher Thad Thumbleson gives his students a lesson on the meaning of having character in his socially distant classroom at Wildwood Elementary in Stillwater, Minn., on Sept. 10, 2020.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2020

The school year has begun for some Minnesota districts, and many kids will be returning to in-person learning for the first time in months. This week, we’re taking a look at the different ways the COVID-19 pandemic has affected school-aged children.

First, we wanted to know how families should be preparing their kids for potential anxiety around going to school during the ongoing pandemic. 

“This is a time of high stress all around,” said Abigail Gewirtz, a professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Family Social Science and the director of the Institute for Translational Research in Children’s Mental Health.

That means parents need to examine their own anxieties around the new school year before talking to their kids in order to avoid passing stress onto them.

“When we want to be responsive to our children’s anxiety, we first need to take a look at ourselves,” Gewirtz told host Steven John.

Once parents feel like they’re in a good place, they should find a time when both they and their child are free for a conversation, Gewirtz said.

In this conversation, parents should try to help their child identify their feelings and where they’re coming from.

Gewirtz emphasized that children may need a hand with recognizing their feelings (“You said you had a tummy ache. When my tummy hurts, that means I’m worried. Do you think you might be feeling worried?”) and connecting them to potential stressors (“School is starting — are you worried about that?”).

Finally, when children identify how they feel, parents should validate their feelings (“I get that you’re worried. If it was me, I would also be worried about that”), Gewirtz said. This leaves the door open to further conversation.

While it’s important to discuss COVID-19 with children, Gewirtz cautioned that it’s also important to find a “balance between keeping our children safe and keeping our children calm.”

“You want to give your child a normal day-to-day existence,” Gewirtz said. “You don’t want them to be so scared that they won’t be able to engage in the typical activities that will help them grow into a healthy, confident adult.”

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

This series is part of Call To Mind, an initiative from MPR to foster new conversations about mental health. Learn more at CallToMindNow.org.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.