COVID-19's Back-to-School Fears and Questions
Summer’s end typically brings excitement and fear about the new school year - What’s the new grade or school going to be like? Will my teacher like me? Will old friends still like me? Will I make new friends?
As if these questions weren’t enough, the COVID-19 pandemic has created new worries:
- Will going to school get me sick?
- Will school open?
- Will school stay open?
- Will my friends go back to school?
- Will friends be in school when I am?
- Will I have to wear a mask all day?
- How often do I have to wash my hands?
- How do I go to the bathroom without touching anything?
- Will going to the bathroom get me sick?
- Can I hold it all day?
- If someone hugs me, will I get them sick or will they get me sick?
- Will I get my grandparents or parents sick?
- If I get someone sick will it be my fault?
- What if someone dies?
- Should I opt for in school learning, at home online learning, or some mix of the two?
- What if the schools open and then close?
- Will schools open and close repeatedly?
- How do I cope with my kids in different grades going to school on different days?
- If I have to go back to work, what will I do with the kids if school is closed?
- I lost my sitter when everything was shut down and I’m afraid to get a new one.
- My kids always get sick during the school year. How will I know if it’s a cold or COVID-19?
- Will sending my kids to school give them COVID-19?
- Will they bring it home and give it to us?
- What if someone dies? Will it be my fault?
Will someone tell me what to do?
Unfortunately, it is hard to know what to do when the situation is new, evolving, life threatening, and involves our children. There is no script to follow because no one solution will work for everybody. Further, pretending that going to school means going back to normal will make it harder to adjust to new school conditions of masks, pods, physical distance, fewer days in school, and COVID-19 testing. These precautions may make it difficult to feel safe.
What can I do?
We know that kids’ feelings about returning to school will be greatly influenced by their parents. To paraphrase the sage wisdom of Mr. Rogers, kids can manage whatever their parents can manage. If parents don’t feel safe, their kids won’t feel safe. When families don’t feel safe, learning, physical health, and psychological health suffer. Also age and the developmental stage of a child will greatly affect what going back to school means to them. Here are some considerations:
Typically worries for kids this age are about separation and losing parents. Fears about COVID will only intensify these worries.
Thus, parents should limit the child's exposure to COVID news on TV and the internet. Simple statements are best. “We help everyone by wearing masks, washing our hands, and giving everyone space to stop this virus.” Parental reassurance about how they love and will protect their child is crucial.
Kindergarten to 2nd Grade
These children try very hard to follow rules to prevent themselves from acting on their wishes. Violating rules leads to overwhelming guilt and a wish to be punished. COVID-19 breaks many rules about how we’re used to living, and has the power to turn children’s worst fears into reality. Parents should avoid battles about right and wrong. Instead, try recognizing everyone makes mistakes and address what the child can do the next time to feel better about themselves.
Middle school age kids focus on friends and popularity. Being at home or masked in school means fewer opportunities to learn who they are outside the family. Kids may deny the risks and blame parents for interfering with friendships. Parents may be more controlling of tweens and early teens as they can sense budding sexuality and future separations on the horizon.
Now, parents can help by being empathetic about what the child is missing out on. Instead of battling about who knows best, parents should provide more neutral sources of COVID-19 information, such as a CDC website.
High School and College
High school and college kids define themselves outside of their family. Sexuality becomes an important way to know themselves. The normal family conflicts over autonomy, hurting parents, denying vulnerabilities, and sexual experimentation become amplified as COVID-19 decreases one’s sense of safety and potentially increases a need to deny risks. Parents may become more controlling as a way to deny a growing awareness that they have less control. However, they would be better served by providing information from experts outside of the family then by getting into tugs of war over who’s in control.
It is normal to feel anxious, guilty, and conflicted when information about COVID-19 keeps evolving and you have to make potentially life threatening decisions about your kids. It’s also normal to be angry when you’re trying to protect your kids, but they blame you for ruining their lives. Expect meltdowns and fights.
Try to not take it personally. Keep in mind that COVID-19 has created new challenges and problems for all age groups, including parents and couples! Getting the support you need to help with overwhelming feelings is more important than ever; it will help you parent better and also help your kids..
About the author: Daniel W. Prezant, PhD, is a Training and Supervising Analyst at the New York Psychoanalytic Society and Institute (NYPSI), where he is also a Supervising Analyst in Child and Adolescent Analysis. He is in private practice for analysis and therapy with children, adolescents, adults, parents, and couples.