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COVID-19: Kids may be anxious about going back to school, says B.C. doctor

 Dr. Ashley Miller, a child psychologist with B.C. Children’s Hospital.
Dr. Ashley Miller, a child psychologist with B.C. Children’s Hospital.

B.C. students from Kindergarten to Grade 12 are heading to back to school next month in what may be a confusing situation for many kids.

Some may wonder why they are going back when many of their parents are still working from home because of the novel coronavirus outbreak. Children might be worried about spreading COVID-19 to loved ones with compromised immune systems, while others are just excited to be back with their friends.

While the situation varies in each household, Dr. Ashley Miller, a child and adolescence psychologist with B.C. Children’s Hospital, says most kids will need guidance and support before going back to school.

And she suggests starting now to prepare them for September by slowly easing up restrictions, whether it’s playing with more friends at a physical distance or going to a school playground.

“Some have more anxiety about catching the virus or making other people sick. They have worries because we’ve been telling them don’t do these things and now we are telling them go do these things,” said Miller.

Miller said the longer people practise avoidance the more fearful they become and so it is natural that children may feel scared about going back into the classroom.

Parents may be struggling with how to let children go out and play safely with their friends as B.C. relaxes some of its COVID-19 protocols, but Miller said parents should start doing more now so both parent and child can build confidence together and ease anxiety before September.

“How we feel and what we do can be more important than what we say,” said Miller.

Her advice is to follow B.C.’s provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry’s recommendations, and if there is a health risk in the family, then it could help to talk to a medical professional about how to make kids feel more comfortable about going to school.

“The thing that was really helpful for me as a parent was seeing the negative impacts of social isolation, and how — when I could manage letting go a bit — seeing how relaxed and how joyous they felt when they were able to see friends,” she said.

“That gave me confidence and then that confidence gave them confidence. It becomes a very positive cycle.”

She recommends desensitization efforts before school. So, that may include more socially distanced play dates, or if they will need to take transit to school, going for walks with your kids to the bus stop. Taking your kids to the school playground or out to a restaurant is another way to get them used to the idea of going back to where people are gathering.

“It will help them, it will help us, to rebuild our confidence together so that by the time school starts it’s not like falling off a cliff into an abyss of uncertainty.”

Anxiety may be expressed differently depending on what age the child is or how they deal with problems. So for example, Miller said in younger children it may be expressed as temper tantrums, while teenagers might refuse to go somewhere they normally enjoy like the beach.

“They may be frightened, overwhelmed or exhausted but it comes out as rage or refusal and teenagers may act irritable, grumpy or blame parents,” she said.

“Getting angry that their parents didn’t buy the right bus pass may be code for ‘I’m nervous about taking the bus’ so as parents we need to be attuned to these signs of anxiety.”

For parents who will be continuing to work from home and are worried that they are sending a mixed messages to their kids by sending them to school, Miller advises naming the elephant in the room.

“Ask them how they feel about the fact that mum and dad will be working from home while they are going to school before you start justifying it,” she said.

Miller added that it also helps to tell your children that you trust that the health professional will make the right choices that will keep them safe at school.

Miller recommends the following sources for parents if they or their kids have anxiety about school:

anxietycanada.com

keltymentalhealth.ca

foundrybc.ca

bccdc.ca/health-info/diseases-conditions/covid-19/covid-19-and-children

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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