Stressed out from online back-to-school? Experts offer advice to navigate
Fort Lauderdale, Fla. -- What do you do if online learning is causing your child anxiety? How do you handle the stress of working while trying to keep a kindergartner in front of the computer for hours?
South Florida mental health experts say the 2020-21 school year could take a toll on the mental health of -- but they offer some ways to cope.
This school year students will not be able to interact physically with teachers or participate in extracurricular activities when distance learning. Those who do go back to in-person learning will need to wear a mask and stay a distance from their friends and teachers.
These new challenges create concerns that are compounded by recent findings: One in four young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 say they have considered suicide in the past month because of the pandemic, according to statistics released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
During a virtual conversation, South Florida child and teen psychologists offered solutions for recognizing and easing stress and anxiety. The panel, titled "Back to School Jitters in the age of COVID-19" hosted by Behavioral Health Associates of Broward, the Counseling Centers of Goodman Jewish Family Services, tackled questions from parents and teachers.
What's the best way to know if your child or teenager is experiencing mental health issues or lacking total motivation with the new format of learning? And, what can you do about it?
"Check in with them regularly," said Jessica Ruiz, chief psychologist and director of Behavioral Health Associates of Broward. "Ask them how their stress level has been, what their frustrations are and what's helpful."
For younger children that have a more limited vocabulary, "you may need to give them crayons and ask them to show you how they are feeling," said Kasi Patterson, a Broward licensed clinical psychologist. Visible aggression or tantrums may actually be frustration or anxiety. "They might not be able to verbalize it," he said.
When expected to sit in front of a screen most of the day, or stay six feet apart in a cafeteria, "kids may not be aware of their anxiety or stress," Patterson said. "It's important we as caregivers are observant of changes in behavior _ hair twirling, pencil biting, chewing on nails."
How can a teacher recognize a student's anxiety over Zoom or through email?
"One of the things you might notice is the student asking a lot of the same questions over and over, and even when they get a response, they ask again," said Maribel Del Rio-Roberts, licensed psychologist and Nova Southeastern University associate professor, licensed psychologist and Nova Southeastern University associate professor. "You might also see a lot of fidgeting behavior. When a child seems unengaged, sometimes it's due to lack of attention but sometimes it's underlying anxiety. They might be ruminating about what's coming next."
For middle school and high school students, online learning can help or compound existing problems. "When you are on a platform like Zoom, you can see yourself. If you already have concerns or body image issues, those things may become heightened," Ruiz said. "But some teens who were more anxious face to face might thrive in this situation."
Ruiz suggests teachers offer multiple ways for students to communicate and encourage them to do so.
How can a parent relieve a child or teen's anxiety when they are anxious themselves or stressed from juggling work and online schooling?
"First, remember we are all doing our best," Patterson said "Accept that today is not the same as yesterday when our lives were different."
Next, he advises thought replacement. The concept is replacing negative thinking, or guilt, with self-compassion and positive thinking.
"There is a lot of focus on what isn't going well or things we are worried about," he said. "Be mindful of what you are taking in. Take time to look at what's going well in your life and talk about it."
What advice do you have for teens who are social by nature and are struggling with social distancing and feeling isolated?
"Ask your teen a lot of open-ended questions," Ruiz said. "It's a good idea to see how they are thinking and what they are craving. You may be able to brainstorm safe ways for them to stay connected to friends."
Because of virtual school, parents may have college-age children at home. How can they help them with their mental health?
"It's a tricky balance for parents. Young adults have been away on their own and have had a taste of independence. Coming back home to some degree can be comforting or create the sense of losing some of their freedom," Ruiz said.
For parents, you do want to check in and see how they are doing, what they are worried about, but at the same time remind yourself to allow them some space to continue to make decisions on their own, she said. "Help them problem solve but respect their privacy."
How do parents answer family members who disagree with their back-to-school decisions and create additional stress?
Whether to send your child back to school in person, or not, is a highly personal decision, Patterson said.
Students at many South Florida private and charter schools are returning to campus and in-person learning will be easier for some families.
"Share that you weighed the risks and benefits and made the best decision possible at this time," he said.