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One Step Ahead 

Anticipating the school year and the pandemic's impact on kids' mental health

Even before 2020 took the U.S. by storm with COVID-19, anxiety and depression were prevalent among our youth. Now more than ever, with the new school year quickly approaching, parents are faced with the challenge of figuring out how to not only calm their children's fears of becoming and getting others sick, they have to quell their feelings of loss and isolation now that home and online schooling have become the new norm.

This fall, families might expect their young students to attend online classes where they won't be able to touch their friends or teachers, and will only interact digitally from home. The limited interaction they have with other children and adults will entail wearing masks. The question is, what can be done to alleviate the stress, fear and sadness that is sure to result from this new way of life?

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Shanti O'Connor is a licensed counselor and founder of The Hive in Bend. Her extensive work with mothers in all phases of their parenting journey has given her unique insight into parenting practices that help support both parents and children through difficult times. She offers up some thoughts and suggestions for parents on how to help support their kids' mental health as they prepare to head back to and make their way through the new school year for which there is still so much uncertainty.

Tips for Supporting Children If and When They Head Back to School

O'Connor suggests the following:

1. Leading into the end of August and the beginning of September, establish a solid routine that mimics a school schedule.

2. As school starts to near, take the time to talk with your kid(s) about what to expect...what their school day will be like, and how these changes are being implemented. Be age specific and direct. Don't dumb down the conversation, but also don't try to scare your child. Use facts and help your child empathize with the situation.

3. The night before school starts, check in with your child. Validate any fears they express, and try if to help them reframe their fears to a more positive outlook.

4. For the first few months, keep your family schedule simple and consistent...This will give your child a feeling of safety and security in a time of uncertainty. It will also allow your child space to experience and express whatever feelings and emotions that may arise from school.

Helping the Overwhelmed Child

O'Connor says children who become overly emotional, exhausted or angry may be struggling with processing overwhelming emotions. She offers the following tips that parents can use to help their children between the ages of 2 to 18 process feelings.

Don't grill your child...Tune in to their mood and what they seem to need. It may be that your child looks happy and is ready to share... It's also possible your child is tired and overwhelmed and needs some time to relax and process the day. Give your child space and let them lead. If you want to ask a question, be specific...Show them that you are curious, but do not be invasive.

Do art with your child. Put on some calming music, let your child pick the medium of art they want to use, and let them have the space to talk or not talk. The intention is to be present with your child and to allow that presence to help them feel safe.

Once you are done, share what you made then ask if they feel comfortable sharing what they made. Don't interpret the drawing. Be curious and ask questions like, "Tell me about...what is it?"

Go for a nightly walk. The bilateral stimulation from walking helps us to organize our thoughts and process emotions. Walking on a trail together can lead to deep conversations. The fresh air, the trees, the animals, and the sun all help to down-regulate the nervous system and bring more coherence to the body. You'll be amazed at how quickly your child will start to share stories and feelings.

O'Connor explains that the idea is to find ways to connect with your child. Other activities that help create connection and the opportunity for your child to share their fears are bike rides, board games, watching movies and reading books together.

A Word on How to Talk to Your Kids

When talking to your children, O'Connor suggests staying away from giving advice. "Instead, after your child shares, simply reflect back what he just said. In your own words give a condensed reflection on what you heard him say. If you are picking up certain feelings behind the words, then share that. For example: 'It sounds like you are feeling nervous about talking to an adult wearing a mask.' If you are picking up an overall meaning behind his share, then reflect that." she explains.

O'Connor suggests that once you have some clarity, ask your child what they want to do to address the issue. "As a parent, we want to empower our children. We want them to know that we know they are capable of solving their problems and that they will have your support," she explains. "Remember: The intention isn't to change or fix, but to be a safe and loving presence. The more you can hold a position of neutrality the more effective you will be in helping your child process their feelings and empower them to make the changes they are ready to make."

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