We have endured so much in the past year. As things are slowly opening back up, kids and teens may be feeling uneasy and uncomfortable with this return to ‘normal’. Many kids still remain virtual with school and have been isolated from friends and from organized activities. Their routines have changed and many have become comfortable with this. They may feel anxious going back to school or to social gatherings where they have to interact with others. These skills have not been practiced for over a year. This can be even harder for kids who experience anxiety and especially social anxiety. In addition to these worries, there could be worries about safety and uncertainty.
Here are some tips to help kids with this transition, which is now being to referred to as re-entry anxiety.
1. Listen and Validate. Help understand what your child may be experiencing and feeling. What are they most worried about? Listen to them. Acknowledge and validate their feelings and emotions even if you don’t fully understand them or relate to them.
2. Take small and gradual steps. Gradual exposure is the best approach to things that are uncomfortable and scary. Total avoidance may seem comfortable in the short term but it will actually make the anxiety worse. Eg. start with smaller gatherings or have your kid get together with a few close friends first. Go to places during times where it may not be as crowded. See if your school can work on ways to help ease the transition back. This may look like shorter days or fewer days/week to start.
3. Focus on activities that are meaningful to your kid. What are some things your kid misses the most and is eager to get back to? Do they miss playing their favorite sport, music classes, working, hanging out with friends? After assessing safety and overall level of comfort as a family, start with those activities first. Do a stepwise approach as discussed above.
4. Have a close friend or “buddy” join. Most kids will feel more comfortable doing things with a friend they are close to. Have your kid walk into school or meet up with a friend in the morning to make it more comfortable going to school. This can be implemented for most social situations too.
5. Get back to healthy routines. Many healthy routines have fallen off in this past year. Start implementing; going to bed at a reasonable time and waking up early, eating nutritious foods, exercising and reducing screen time (especially before bed).
6. Provide reassurance and seek additional support. It is normal to feel uneasy and anxious about going back to ‘normal’. There has been so much uncertainty, fear and change during these times. Provide realistic but supportive reassurance. Share with teachers and family what your kid is going through so they can help support him or her. If your child needs additional support and help, reach out to your pediatrician, school counselor or seek the help of a child therapist or psychiatrist.
7. Be patient and kind to yourself. Model the behavior you want your kid to see but also be patient and kind to yourself. We have gone through an extremely difficult and challenging year. This is hard. Adjusting and transitioning will take time and patience. It should not be rushed and there is no right or wrong way to approach it. Also, remember that kids are resilient!