The Return To “Normal”

By Liza Ibrahim, LPC

Back to school? Back to work? Back to a “normal” routine? The transition from virtual to in-person routines can create some feelings of anxiety and worry, especially for children and adolescents returning to school. More than a year into the pandemic, people have become accustomed to the lives they’ve built and the routines they’ve created in their homes and some are not looking forward to a return to “normal.” For many people, it’s about the worry that comes with the idea of reacclimating into society. For many children and adolescents, it might be the anxiety related to adjusting back to a school routine, meeting teachers in person for the first time, following a specific structure in the classroom, socializing with peers again, and feeling safe during the pandemic.

Children and adolescents respond to stress in different ways such as being more clingy, anxious, withdrawn, or angry. Being as supportive as possible, listening to their concerns and validating their feelings can be helpful. Here are some helpful tips on how to support your children and adolescents during this time:

  • Model coping with stress: As parents, we have the opportunity to model for our children how to cope with stressful scenarios in healthy ways.
  • Self care: Engage in self-care activities for the family, such as taking nature walks, going out for fresh air, and reading.
  • Story telling: Use read aloud books (available on YouTube) to help children learn about coping skills in a fun way. You can search, “coping skills read aloud for children” to find books for children of different ages.
  • Validate feelings: Validate their emotions with such statements as “I understand you are feeling worried,” “Let’s talk about why you’re feeling anxious, help me understand.”
  • Rely on routines: Using a regular routine that is consistent and structured will support all children, especially students who struggle with learning disabilities, anxiety, and ADHD (please see section below for more tips).
  • Process upcoming changes: Anticipate what changes might/will happen and begin to talk with your children about how those changes will affect their daily school routine.
  • Have a feelings check-in: A feeling’s check-in can be as simple as asking, “How are you feeling today?” Using a visual feelings chart may also be helpful with younger children. When children and teens are feeling anxious, it may or may not be clear to parents. Anxiety can present in many different ways:
    • Reassurance-seeking (e.g., Is Grandpa going to be okay?)
    • Reluctance to separate from parents
    • Physical symptoms like headaches or stomach aches
    • Moodiness and irritability
    • Tantrums or meltdowns
    • Trouble sleeping

Returning to school for any in-person learning can be a mixed emotional experience for many children. Here are some tips on how to prepare children and adolescents to return to in-person learning:

  • Routines: Students thrive with routines and are successful when there is structure.
    • Use a calendar to visualize which days are in-person versus virtual.
    • Set an appropriate bedtime and nightly routine to prepare for sleep.
    • Explore their thoughts and feelings about returning to school.
    • Establish expectations around exercise, limited screen time, regular meals and healthy amounts of sleep to support optimal learning.
  • Hygiene safety: Teach children and adolescents how to maintain simple hygiene to prevent the spread of the virus.
    • Reinforce the importance of washing their hands/using hand sanitizer after getting home, using the bathroom, sneezing or blowing their nose, having contact with frequently touched surfaces, etc.
    • Encourage children to wear a mask and teach them how to wear it appropriately.
  • School safety: Become familiar with the classroom/school safety rules that students will need to follow.
    • Reinforce the importance of following school safety protocols.
    • Teach children to maintain an appropriate physical distance from peers and adults and to keep their hands to themselves.
    • Reinforce the importance of not sharing school supplies, snacks or other personal items.
    • Validate how hard it can be to sometimes maintain physical distance and not share with their friends. Sharing, playing and bonding comes naturally and it can be very confusing and challenging to adapt to the new safety guidelines.

As parents, remember to be kind to yourself and take it day by day as you guide your children and adolescents through these times. It is so important to find a happy medium and take some time for yourself as you too learn to adjust to the new routines as we all return to our new “normal.”