Caution and concern is on the mind of parents preparing to send their children back to school in the midst of this continuing global pandemic.
A recent survey into the impact of COVID-19 on people’s attitudes by polling company by Leger found that 75 percent of parents in the province are worried about sending their children back to school, while 63 percent of children said they were nervous and anxious about the return.
With students expected to return to class Sept. 10 and teachers returning Sept. 8 to prepare for them, anxiety over what to expect is a reality for all.
For Cdr Ellen Mariano, Commanding Officer Joint Task Force Pacific Headquarters, back-to-school for her two children is both a relief to return to some normality, and nervousness.
“I am worried because we have kept our bubble very small since the pandemic began and I have been very strict about who and how my children are able to interact with other children and families in the neighbourhood,” she said.
She says separation anxiety and the act of breaching the bubble and returning to a regular school routine has become an overwhelming concern for the entire family.
“They have been by our side for so long now that going back to school is a big concern and will be a huge challenge emotionally.”
Added to her concerns is how the province’s back-to-school plan will keep her children safe. If one of her children, or a schoolmate becomes infected and unwittingly brings the virus home, it would mean self-isolation for her and her husband LCdr Jeff Chura, who commands HMCS Whitehorse.
Cdr Mariano’s concerns are not uncommon, says Holly Flower, a social worker with the Military Family Resource Centre (MFRC). She expects calls to the MFRC intake line will ramp up with military families seeking advice and counselling about back-to-school for their children.
“Most families have never had a challenge like this to overcome and not since the Spanish flu of the early 20th century has the world been impacted and challenged on this level,” said Flower. “When a parental challenge is handled with love, support, and warmth, a child becomes stronger and will be better able to face future difficulties.”
However, she adds, military families already have experience dealing with adversity, with long-term separations, postings, and the necessity to be flexible and move on short notice.
“For many of these families there is already a level of resilience to be able to change, adapt and problem solve,” she said. “I think it is very critical to look at these strengths.”
To address the back-to-school mental health concerns of military parents and their children, Flower has compiled some advice and tips.
Understand your own level of stress and possible anxiety
There’s no disputing the current state of things in relation to the pandemic has added a great deal of stress and concern for most people. Humans thrive on predictability and a sense of knowing what to expect from moment to moment. We have all been thrown into a world with many unknowns and many unanswered questions.
Children and youth are incredibly insightful and will pick up on their parent’s sense of safety, or lack thereof, and the concerns about returning them to school. The best thing we can ever do for our children and their development is to address our own concerns and seek support to discuss our stress levels, our worries, and even our own experience of anxiety.
Start preparing for the school return early
It’s important to start shifting your child/children’s routine to the back-to-school routine now. Amend your child’s morning, evening, and sleep routine before school starts. Building a structure is an important part of child to feeling prepared to return to school.
For tweens and teens, supporting them in putting away their phones and technical devices an hour before bedtime is important for their sleep. This might feel nearly impossible with some teens but communication is the key. Discuss the importance and reason for putting away the phone at a time when both you and your teen are calm.
Talk and “listen” to your child
Your child may be absorbing information from the television, social media, or even from their family about the pandemic. They may not entirely understand the implications of what they hear and may feel overwhelmed by the information. Make time to talk with your child about their thoughts and feelings. Use open-ended questions to get your child talking and open up about what their thinking about and what concerns they might have about returning to school. No matter your child’s age, validating their feelings and concerns can help them to process their experience. After a child has had the opportunity to express their concerns, it’s time to come up with a few strategies that might help with the back to school transition. Be sure to include your child in developing these strategies.
Recognize signs of worry and concern
Sometimes it seems like our kids are acting out, talking back, and/or melting down to make our lives more difficult. Try and remember that a child and/or teen’s difficult behaviour often reflects an unmet need of some kind. A child may not have the words or understanding of their emotional landscape to explain to you: I’ve just thrown my book across the room and am crying because I’m tired and afraid. Again, your child’s behaviour is an opportunity to get curious about what’s going on for them. Decide not to take their behaviour personally or focus only on how their behaviour is impacting us, then you can be more compassionate and supportive. When all else fails, offer a hug and let your child know you’re there for them.
Arrange a tour of the school
If you sense your child/teen is experiencing trepidation about returning to school, call the school to take a tour and see the preparations. Showing your child/teen the route they will take from the front door to the classroom can help to alleviate the angst they might feel about the unknowns of a school year. If possible, arrange to have your child meet with the principal or an office administrator, who may also be able to help ease their concerns about heading back to school.
Teach your child COVID-19 safety protocols
This may dependent on the protocols your child’s school will have in place, but making a game out of social distancing and mask wearing can take some of the fear out of doing something new, and possibly strange or scary to them. Perhaps putting their arms out for social distancing makes them feel like they have wings like an airplane. Washing their hands while singing their favourite song becomes less of a chore and more of an opportunity to sing and feel warm, soapy water.
Seeking medical advice
If you’re concerned about your child’s level of worry and wonder if it may be anxiety, speaking with a doctor can be an important place to start. It can also be important to connect with the school to see what advice and supports they may be able to offer. Military connected families have access to programming such as “Strongest Families” that teaches parents how to support children who are experiencing anxiety. The MFRC is also a place to seek information and support. It’s important to seek support sooner rather than later as what starts as worry may become more difficult to overcome when it goes unaddressed.
Getting help and info
If you need support for you or your family the professional counsellors at your MFRC know all about the military family lifestyle and how to support you and your children during challenging times. Give them a call at the confidential intake line at 778-533-7736 or email email@example.com. Appointments can be arranged by phone, email or virtually from your computer, smartphone or tablet, or in person.
The Province of British Columbia’s Back-To-School Plan is outlined in a policy document on its website https://www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/education-training/k-12/covid-19-return-to-school#our-plan
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