How Parents Can Help Kids Manage Back-to-School Anxiety

For most children in Japan, school resumes after summer vacation. Those following the Japanese school calendar have just started their second term, while most students in international schools will have progressed by one grade. Parents usually greet this season with a collective sigh of relief, but this year the ongoing pandemic has added a whole new layer of stress about going back to school.

Emma Sasaki has two children, aged 8 and 13, who attend a Japanese school. “Fortunately, my city started offering vaccines to children aged 12 and over, so my oldest had her first injection, but many of her classmates didn’t. She sees the news of the growing number of young people catching COVID-19 here and worries that her friends and those at her school will get it and then have to shut the whole school down, ”she says.

In an attempt to allay fears of catching COVID-19, some Japanese schools are offering a “hybrid” approach, which allows students to choose to attend classes as usual or register online from home. However, tutors of young children say that the technical challenges of distance learning require a constant adult presence for it to be truly effective.

Sasaki says his 8-year-old son is happy to be back in class after a summer spent mostly at home, but expressed frustration with the social distancing measures underway at his school and all the canceled events. “I appreciate the school doing what it can to keep everyone safe, but the kids deserve to be carefree! I’m worried about the long-term effects on their social development, ”she admits.

Two experts from TELL who specialize in working with youth and schools offer reassuring ideas and advice to help children and parents get through these stressful times.

Watch for the signs

In addition to her work as a psychotherapist at TELL, Ashly Schanback Ishii is a counselor at the United School of Tokyo. She says children will certainly be affected by what they see adults doing around them doing, and this can have a direct impact on how children perceive and deal with stress from COVID-19.

“The older the child, the more likely they are to be aware of the risks associated with COVID variants, as reported by their caregivers or through social media and the media. This information can directly contribute to anxiety symptoms in children when they return to class, but children can also be indirectly affected by the anxiety they see in their caregivers, teachers and other adults, ”says Ishii. “For young children, they are less likely to be directly affected by information about the pandemic and more likely to be affected by the way the adults around them handle things. “

Ishii points out that there are various signs that could indicate that a young person is feeling stressed: Warning signs in young children include bedwetting and difficulty sleeping, as well as general irritability, stickiness or the tears. For older children, you might find a lack of self-confidence to try new things, difficulty concentrating, eating or sleeping problems, negative thought patterns, emotional outbursts, and avoiding (or wanting to avoid) everyday activities, such as going to school.

Positive modeling

Since children will be inspired by adults, Ishii says it’s important to “model” balance and productive behavior.

“Children learn the most by watching and imitating adults, so we can better show them how to deal with anxiety and stress. For general stress management, nothing beats a healthy diet, exercise and regular sleep schedules, so caregivers should start there, ”she says.

However, when things get overwhelming, helping children find healthy outlets to vent their frustration or even anger can be very helpful. A recommended resource is the Positive Discipline Choice Wheel, which lets children know that it is okay to have these feelings and teaches healthy and constructive coping mechanisms. Ishii suggests that finding ways to deal with frustration together can also bond for a family, such as hugging a pillow or other safe object and expressing feelings with pictures.

Checklist for coping

Alejandra Reyes is a clinical psychologist for TELL and a counselor at the British School in Tokyo. “When children experience continued stress, it can add to previous difficulties – say if before the pandemic the child had difficulties with social skills, then these may have fallen even further behind due to social distancing. , the lack of social events and face masks, ”she notes.

Reyes offers the following helpful tips for parents:

Validate their feelings. It is important to let your child know that feeling even unpleasant emotions is normal. Emphasizing that you see something that is troubling them helps children feel accepted and safe.

Review security measures. These can change from day to day. You want children to focus on what they can do to stay healthy. Using visual resources or prompts such as stories, puppets, or videos can help. Use only age-appropriate information from reliable resources. Ask them what they have done to stay healthy and praise them for their efforts to keep them motivated. Remind them that their actions have an effect on others, it is also supporting and helping their loved ones.

Have a routine. This helps to create an atmosphere of consistency and a sense of control. Parents need to collaborate with children, allowing children to develop a sense of personal responsibility so that they fit into the routine. Be open to fun ideas like having breakfast for dinner or asking older kids to share music or video playlists during meals.

Create time for connection. With physical distancing restrictions and face masks still recommended, adults should schedule extra time to be with their children that doesn’t involve school or academics. Creating moments of connection with them using their body and mind will span different areas of development that the pandemic has disrupted. Some research-based suggestions, as well as some of Reyes’ personal suggestions, exercise or sport; to do yoga; practice mindfulness; try breathing exercises; go out into nature for a walk, run or bike ride; try a new activity or hobby together such as puzzles, board games, card tricks, art projects, or cooking a new dish; and give a new twist to an old routine. These will help foster bonding with children and develop resilience skills.

Talking to teens

While the above is important for kids of all ages, both experts offered additional advice on the often sensitive topic of connecting with teens.

“Some teens may be reluctant to share what they think and feel at their particular stage of development. In this case, it is helpful to let your teenager know that you are available if he ever wants to talk (but not to force him to do so), and to offer him additional options from other safe adults with whom he is. can connect, “Ishii says.

Reyes advises being creative when it comes to connecting with older kids. “Try to listen and stay curious by using open-ended questions and avoid criticism. Remember, some may feel more comfortable texting rather than talking, so offering virtually available external resources can help, ”she suggests.

Finally, parenting can be difficult at the best of times, so remember to slack off or reach out to other adults when you feel overwhelmed during this extremely difficult time.

The TELL Lifeline is available for those who need free, anonymous advice at 03-5774-0992. You can also visit

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