Help Kids Cope with the 'New Normal,' Back-to-School Stress

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The pandemic has put an enormous amount of stress on families—and so will the return to in-person classes this year. To assess what this means for parents and children, Newsweek spoke with three leading experts in child psychology about the challenges many families are now facing: Jack P. Shonkoff, M.D., professor of child health and development at the Harvard School of Public Health; Scott Russo, professor of neuroscience and director of the Center for Affective Neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai; and Nadine Burke Harris, M.D., the surgeon general of California. Here are highlights:

Newsweek: How can parents and teachers help children bounce back from the trauma of the pandemic?

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris: Start by validating their experience and recognizing that this has been really hard. Help people tap into and recognize what they have control over and their power to heal. Physical activity is huge, especially in team sports where you have coaching, which is mentorship, and the camaraderie of the other athletes. Physical activity also helps reduce stress hormones and release healthy hormones. And anything that allows people to make sense of what's happened and leverages their passion, whether it's music or art or whatever.

Also, we have the ability to create environments that support resilience by supporting, safe, stable and nurturing relationships. If kids are getting this support in school and also at home and in their after-school program and maybe in their church or synagogue—that cumulative buffering helps to offset the adversity that we've experienced.

NW: Why will the change of routine be difficult for kids going back to school this year?

Dr. Burke Harris: Kids have been in distance learning for the past year because there's a pandemic and it's too dangerous to go to school. Now we're saying, "Okay, go back to school. And you have to be wearing masks."

The change in the routine, the change in what is the new normal, the disorienting new set of rules that they have to learn—it's going to activate their cortisol. For every child, even if they're in classrooms all day, there's a new set of rules about what you can do and what you can't do. All the while we have messages about what's safe and what's not safe. And now the Delta variant is coming in.

All of these things are stressful for parents. Kids are sensitive to and reacting to their parents' stress response.

NW: Do you have any tips to help kids build resilience?

Dr. Jack Shonkoff: You build resilience in children, at any age, by doing everything you can to buffer them against severe adversity that super-turbocharges their stress-response system. And if that stays turbocharged for long periods of time, it can have biological consequences. Equally important is to coach and model and facilitate the child's development of coping skills and adaptive skills.

The thing you want to avoid is to think of resilience as something that you do yourself—especially if you're talking about kids. There are wide ranges in how kids are intrinsically resilient. Some kids are just more sensitive to the environment. Some kids are more adaptable. The more sensitive kids, in tough situations, are at greater risk.

Dr. Burke Harris: When we're thinking about healing, it's not going to happen passively. It's something that we have to be very active in ensuring that our kids and, frankly, adults, have as many sources of healing and buffering interactions as possible.

NW: How should parents and teachers handle kids who are having trouble coping?

Dr. Shonkoff: They should have their eyes and ears open to who's okay and who's not. It's not hard to find out which kids are in big trouble. We need to jump on that as soon as we can, because they're very vulnerable.

For the youngest kids, you help them by helping the adults who take care of them. We want to think about what kind of services and interventions they need—their levels of depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse. That stuff has to be addressed, and not just child programs focused on kids.

The kids to worry the most about—and the families to worry the most about—are those who became invisible during the pandemic, who are socially isolated. We don't know what's going on in their lives and in their families. There are a lot of kids who just didn't appear in school that year and a half and they weren't online. Nobody sent the truant officer after them. We should be intensely worried about them. It's not just the loss of education, it's also the environment in which those kids are living that made them invisible.

NW: How well do you anticipate kids will bounce back from the pandemic?

Scott Russo: A whole host of things went on over the past year, probably from isolation. There was a huge spike in family violence and, particularly, partner violence. Those things are known to dramatically affect mental health. And when you experience them in childhood, your system develops under those boundaries, so to speak. Those are critical periods during which your emotional circuits are developing in the brain. When you experience these very traumatic events, they change the trajectory of how your [brain] circuits form—and they don't reverse.

If you're an adult and you've had a relatively healthy upbringing, the reality is, you'll probably bounce back. If you're a kid that experienced it and your [brain] circuits formed under those circumstances, you might not bounce back.

NW: What about kids who don't have a lot of support?

Russo: If you don't have the support, you're at a disadvantage. But you do have natural mechanisms in place that can protect you even in the absence of support. When you're exposed to or you experience something that's highly adverse, you have to choose a series of behaviors. You have to decide what you're going to do in the face of that adversity. The choice is important. If you choose to actively cope, you're going to be protected. If you choose to passively cope, you're not going to be protected. Some people seek out support and take active steps in mitigating the amount of stress on them, and others just let it build up and don't do anything about it and it just gets worse and worse.

NW: What is the effect on parents and kids of having been cooped up together through the pandemic?

Dr. Shonkoff: Some families, because they've been working at home, have actually had more time together. There's been positive aspects to that. The flip side is—and this is getting to the heart of the inequality issue here—part of the population that, pre-COVID-19, was already dealing with significant burdens and hardships is at extraordinary risk for more serious problems. A lot of children are going to be in trouble from this, but not all children are going to be in trouble from this.

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