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Children's Anxiety & Loneliness This School Year Can Be Managed, Experts Say

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Regardless of what back-to-school looks like for your kids this year, things will be drastically different. Virtual learning, social distancing, and mask-wearing are bound to cause a myriad of emotions to bubble up. If your child experiences anxiety and loneliness during back-to-school season this year, experts say it's completely possible to manage these feelings.

"Most people you speak to will tell you they have struggled with the isolation and loneliness that has resulted from the pandemic. If this is difficult for adults, think of how much loneliness and social isolation weighs on children," neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez, Psy.D., tells Romper. "While social distance and remote learning is part of a plan to keep people safe, it also presents setbacks and challenges when it comes to social development and morale."

The beginning of the school year can bring about so many anxious thoughts in kids, even under the best of circumstances. But add in the uncertainty about how much interaction a child will get with their peers and you could be looking at a recipe for disaster. Experts recommend exploring exactly what it is that has led your child to feel the way that they do, whether they are engaged in distance learning or heading back to the classroom.

"Discuss their thoughts and then share effective ways they can handle their emotions by introducing them to activities that might be helpful such as breathing exercises," Dr. Drew A. Pate, M.D., chief of psychiatry at LifeBridge Health, tells Romper. "In addition, we can talk about how much we are all looking forward to restarting plans, schedules and hobbies when our COVID concerns have lessened."

But, what if your child is just plain lonely and misses their friends? Online learning definitely has hampered in-person interaction with classmates, and social distancing means even kids attending school may feel lonely without being able to really play with their classmates. One thing experts agree can help is talking through this experience with your children.

"Speak with your children about how they are feeling and what types of emotions they have experienced throughout this process," Hafeez recommends. "An important aspect of this communication is keeping it a two-way street. This means sharing with your child how this pandemic has challenged all of us and giving them examples of how it has challenged you. These talks should end with affirmations of support to help the child feel comforted and positive about sharing how they feel."

These are all experiences out of your child's control, but Dr. Laura Gray, Ph.D., clinical psychologist at Children’s National Hospital, tells Romper that parents can encourage their children to look at what they actually can control and help them take action. "Children are missing peer interactions that are typically provided in school," she explains. "Social skills development is critical for young children, and finding modified peer interactions can help to reduce feelings of loneliness and anxiety during this pandemic."

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This could look like having a video play date with your child and their friends, finding social activities they can do outside while wearing a mask, or joining a club that meets in a small group setting. "Scheduling social activities that your child can look forward to will reduce their feelings of isolation and loneliness," Gray says. "Having at least one activity per week to look forward to can be mood boosting."

Additionally, some kids may benefit from the connection that comes from helping others such as making cards for family members or doing yard work for elderly members of their community. Hafeez says that spending more quality time doing activities as a family and even adopting a pet can also help kids battle the feelings of loneliness they may be struggling with.

If your child is anxious or lonely while they're physically at school due to social distancing and mask-wearing, part of helping alleviate these feelings comes by way of both validation and encouragement. "Parents can validate that it may be harder to hear a peer or read their facial expressions with a mask, but that their peers are also likely feeling lonely and wanting to get to talk with friends," Gray says. "Parents can practice with their children — wear masks and practice talking, listening, taking turns, and using hand movements to add expression. Brainstorming things to share with peers and questions to ask peers can also increase children’s confidence and self-efficacy."

Above all, kids need to know that the adults around them can help them through this difficult time, regardless of what it all looks like right now. Letting them engage with others in safe and healthy ways while recognizing their emotions is of the utmost importance. "It’s important to reassure and emphasize to kids that caregivers and teachers want to understand their concerns and are willing to hear them," Pate says.

Experts:

Dr. Sanam Hafeez, Psy.D., a neuropsychologist in New York City, faculty member at Columbia University

Dr. Drew A. Pate, M.D., chief of psychiatry, LifeBridge Health in Maryland

Dr. Laura Gray, Ph.D., clinical psychologist at Children’s National Hospital