Normal back to school jitters pale in comparison to the anxiety families are facing over COVID-19. Without concrete plans in place for many districts, kids are fearing the unknown.

Cynthia Wilson, MD, Unit Chief of Yale New Haven Psychiatric Hospital’s Adolescent Unit, said she’s seen an increase in anxiety and depression with her patients. Unexplained physical symptoms like headaches, belly aches, loss of sleep or appetite can be signs a child is dealing with anxiety.

Dr. Wilson said first, parents should recognize their own anxiety about COVID-19 because kids can pick up on that very easily.

“If parents are really, really anxious about it then kids will be really, really anxious too,” she said.

Jennifer Dwyer, MD, said it's important to acknowledge that uncertainty during this time can be anxiety-provoking, but then turn the focus to the things we can control. For example, wearing a mask is something everyone can do to help keep others safe.

Teacher with students wearing masks

Parents will also need to talk to their kids about how this school year will look different. They should have open conversations about the importance of hand washing, social distancing and wearing masks. Then, parents should model that behavior at home so children have a chance to get used to it.

They can also explain that COVID-19 safety precautions are in place to keep everyone safe. Yet the heart of what happens at school, like learning new things and engaging with friends, will remain the same.

Once the school year starts, parents will have to keep an eye on how their child is adjusting. Dr. Wilson said increased anxiety can lead to increased rates of depression and other mental health disorders.

“I think parents just need to be very attuned to what’s going on with their child and they should be asking questions about how they’re feeling and what’s happening,” Dr. Wilson said.

Students with masks

Warning signs for depression may be similar to anxiety, including changes in sleep, mood, behavior and appetite. In kids and teens, depression can be expressed in mood changes like irritability, crankiness, or anger. Any significant changes in social interest, family engagement, academic function, and activities of daily life are reasons to initiate a non-judgmental check-in about how a child is feeling.

Self-harm and thoughts of suicide are red flags. When talking about depression, It’s OK for parents to ask straight-forward questions, such as, “Have you ever thought about suicide?” and “Would you reach out to me (or another adult) for help?” It is important for parents to remember that asking about suicidal thinking does not cause suicidal behavior.

Even with an open line of communication, a child thinking about self-harm may decide to confide in a friend instead. If that happens, children should know that they can go to an adult for help.

“Kids are often very nervous about what to do. They don’t want to get their friend in trouble. They don’t want to lose the friendship. But it’s always, always appropriate for a child to tell an adult if they hear that one of their friends is feeling that way,” Dr. Wilson said.

In a mental health emergency, you can call 911 or 211, a free, confidential line for mental health help in Connecticut. If you or someone you know is in crisis, you can also call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

More Resources

Supporting Children's Emotional Well-Being During COVID-19

A Virtual Town Hall