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Mental health expert weighs in on preparing kids for back to school

Posted at 9:09 AM, Jul 28, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-28 09:09:19-04

TAMPA, Fla. — Going back to school can be a stressful time for kids and parents even without a pandemic, and August gets closer steadily approaching.

Marissa Bergman and her husband are the parents of two young boys. She knows the stressors that can come with the unknown all too well.

"My concern is that the next pandemic is going to be a mental health crisis because it is so difficult on so many families," Bergman said.

As a yoga instructor bringing zen into her home is a natural element. She talks to her boys regularly about how they're feeling and lets them have their moments to express themselves.

"I am so grateful that my children are young enough that I think that they're okay," Bergman said.

Allowing children to express themselves is exactly what Dr. Jillian Heilman with the University of South Florida recommends as kids prepare to go back to school.

She said the uncertainty COVID-19 will have on schools and how they operate can magnify anxiety that is already there.

"When we have things that we're not aware of we have fear and kids have fear too. Their anxieties are just as important as ours and needs to be recognized," Dr. Heilman said.

Dr. Heilman recommended that parents stay calm in the days of the unknown.

She said kids feed off of their parent's emotions. If the parents are stressed she said the kids will most likely feel the same.

Also, try to turn any negative COVID-19 connotations into positives. She said kids will remember that later in life over the doom and gloom.

"I think kids are more resilient than us. Most kids who go through traumatic events are pretty resilient compared to their adult counterparts," Dr. Heilman said.

Dr. Heilman said it's important to watch children's emotions and actions as they get back into the educational swing of things.

For the younger ones who don't yet know how to express themselves, she said to watch their actions.

Ask yourself questions like, are they reverting back to bed-wetting, thumb-sucking or nail-biting.

If so, it may be worth contacting their pediatrician.

Elementary school-aged children may have trouble sleeping or have a loss of appetite.

As for teenagers, she said not all of them are itching to tell their parents how they're feeling. She proposed they write their emotions down in a journal.

She said taking pen to pad may be the outlet that helps get them through the unknown.

"The thing to do is let them know that it's normal. Let them know that other kids are feeling the same way," Dr. Heilman said.

If a child has a mental health history, Dr. Heilman recommends talking to their doctor before the school year starts.

"Check in with their therapist before school starts because they may have a more difficult time before the average kid," Dr. Heilman said.

Every child will handle the pandemic differently and because of this, Dr. Heilman suggested parents talk to their child's teacher prior to the start of school if COVID-19 has affected their family directly.

"If your child returns to brick and mortar schools let the teacher know, hey we have had a loss in the family recently. Hey, grandpa has COVID right now and it's adding some extra fear. So, you can contact the school guidance counselor. The school social workers as well as the teacher," Dr. Heilman said.

Whether a child is virtual learning or heading back to the traditional classroom, Dr. Heilman said each family is different.

Bergman can see the benefits to both options but said she's not letting the worry consume her or her kids.

If after a few weeks your kids are still feeling anxious talk to your pediatrician or local doctor to see if a therapist may be a good option for your child.

Dr. Heilman said there are a number of free therapy options for parents. For more information check out these resources: