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Back to School – Beginning of the Covid Rehabilitation Process

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With our children returning to their classrooms this week, many families are understandably feeling anxious and uncertain about what lies ahead. The last year has been extremely disruptive for all, but for children, it has been particularly hard. Psychotherapist Noel McDermott has put together the following advice to help families. 

He comments: ‘While parents and kids are looking forward to being back at school, we have to be aware it’s a major transition to go through again. There is much uncertainty around this process and a history of disappointment. This can lead to a situation in which we feel difficult things around the changes but don’t ascribe it to the cause, which is this major life transition back to school. It is important families offer as much emotional and practical support as they can.’

Matt Hancock and the government, in the confirmation of the return to school, have recognised the damage that has been done to children and families during this pandemic. Eating disorders in children have risen, as have serious mental health problems, and the number of children with common mental health problems such as anxiety and depression has grown. In recognition of this, Matt Hancock recently announced that new mental health services will be available for schools and kids.

Noel continues: ‘We have to be honest – we have significant problems ahead that are not simply about educational attainment. We must plan our way out of this with a rehabilitation model. We will recover over time and with the right support. Going back to school is the beginning of the rehabilitation, it’s not the magic bullet.’

Top tips

  • Talk to your children about how they’re feeling, explain it’s normal and natural if they’re feeling worried
  • Monitor for signs they are struggling by watching out for mood, presentation or behaviour changes that last longer than a day or two
  • Increase family time and family events to be able to lift each other up and observe your kids at work and play

The pandemic has brought a lot of grief and, when returning to school, many children will have experienced loss or the serious illness of loved ones. As a country, we haven’t processed this loss yet. Your own children may be in this category or may have friends who have experienced this. Openness to these types of difficult experiences is important as we emerge from the pandemic, as is allowing space for these things to be discussed. Your kids may have friends whose parents are facing a very uncertain future, and this may also be an issue for you too. Being able to be open up about fears and uncertainties and learning to manage uncertainty is important at this time. Learning to accept that life is full of uncertainty is the key to letting go of anxiety. We need to plan for a number of possible outcomes from this time and keep it simple. We also have to accept the world has changed, and we are not going back to normal. Instead, we are going forward to a new reality, and we are learning more effective ways of living with the pandemic.

Don’t be surprised if you see behaviours in your children linked to coping with change (for younger kids being clingier, or sucking thumbs again, etc, or for older ones acting out around boundaries). These will subside, allow a couple of weeks for this and simply increase emotional support.

Noel comments: ‘There is though in this transition the sense this is ‘the one’ and a typical feeling is that now we have to pay the price. It’s back to reality. Kids have had their education and employment opportunities significantly impacted in this last year. We all need to get into a rehabilitation mindset. We have to rehabilitate our lives and repair the damage that has been done over a realistic timescale and in a realistic manner.’

Classic signs of anxiety in children

  • Feeling of nervousness or being on edge, e.g., sitting on the edge of your seat, nail-biting
  • Not being able to stop or control worrying, feeling like your head is spinning like a hamster on a wheel
  • Worrying about too many different things at once
  • Difficulties relaxing
  • Being restless and unable to sit still, constant fidgeting 
  • Becoming easily annoyed or irritable 
  • Feelings of doom or as if something bad is going to happen

Classic signs of depression

  • Withdrawal
  • Aggression
  • Changes to diet, sleep patterns, mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Older children may turn to alcohol, etc., to self-medicate

Advice to help anxious school children and their families

  • Routine is essential for kids and can help diminish feelings of anxiety. Try to start and finish the day the same way every day.
  • Open conversations – encourage them to talk about how they are feeling, remind them it’s OK to feel this way, discuss some of the things that have changed because of the pandemic. Any struggle in the here and now is OK as long as we have hope that our future will be bright.
  • Get outside after school every day, nature is brilliant at lifting mood, it will be a great opportunity to discuss the school day and any concerns they may have.
  • Sleep, eat and drink well – children need good, sound sleep to ensure proper body and mind development. A nutritious diet plays an important role in a child’s physical and mental health. Get the basics right and the rest will follow.
  • Exercise – stay active and get the blood flowing. Getting active for 20 minutes a day regulates your mood, just add some brisk walking into your day, or encourage the children to play in the garden or local park while the weather is good.
  • Treat your kids – have a list of those things your children especially like and treat them when you think they deserve a lift. You also deserve treats – be kind to yourself.

Noel McDermott is a psychotherapist with over 25 years’ experience in health, social care, and education, with a range of online therapy resources to help clients.

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