It’s normal for any child to have butterflies in their stomach on the first day back to school, but kids returning to the classroom after what 2020 has dealt us may be more than apprehensive. Add to that the fact that domestic violence rates have sharply increased since the pandemic, it means that many kids may be trying to return to normal as a victim of abuse, which can include witnessing abuse or violence at home, or being the target. As the protective parent, you may see your child showing signs of anxiety or being visibly scared to separate from you.
“This is a really hard time for families right now, and especially families that are dealing with the aftereffects of trauma,” says Jamie M. Howard, Ph.D., a senior clinical psychologist in the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute and the director of the Center’s Trauma and Resilience Service.
Still, it’s critical for parents to do their best to help their children transition back to school when the time is right. Here are six tips from Howard to prepare your child.
1. Research Ahead of Time
Find out as much as you can about the school your child will be attending in advance of the first day. What is the schedule like? Where is your child’s classroom? Will he or she have any friends in class? What are the safety precautions your child will need to get used to in light of the pandemic (i.e., masks or social distancing)?
“Kids who’ve experienced trauma tend to be more on guard and vigilant for danger, and one way to decrease some of their vigilance is to give them as much information as possible,” Howard says. “I would recommend getting information about the new protocols in place because of COVID-19 and going through them really carefully with kids. Seeing a bunch of people in masks or adult teachers in masks can be especially alarming to children who have a trauma history.”
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2. Make Introductions
Speaking of teachers, ask if you and your child can meet his or her teacher before school starts, even if it’s by videoconference (with a mask and without, so your child can recognize their teacher both ways). This can help your child feel more comfortable in the classroom.
“I think that could go a long way so that they can start to develop hopefully a trusting relationship and have the belief that they’ll be safe in the school,” Howard says.
And if it’s safe to do so, consider setting a playdate with a classmate so your child will have another familiar face in the room on the first day.
3. Talk About What It’s OK to Talk About
It can be incredibly healing for a child to discuss what he or she has been through, but kids, especially younger ones, should be redirected to other topics than abuse for discussion with peers.
“It’s not something that other kids would understand or relate to. Plus, it’s not developmentally typical to talk about—and the poor kids who’ve been through the domestic abuse might risk rejection, which is the last thing you want,” Howard says. “So, I would tell your kids, ‘It’s totally OK to talk about what’s happened with—and then name specific grown-ups. With other kids, some of the things to talk about are how much you love soccer, what you’re learning in school, etc.’ Give them specific things to talk to peers about to help them relate.”
Howard cautions older teenagers as well from sharing too much or relying only on peers for support.
“Teenagers can handle some of the difficult things that happen in the world,” she says. “But still, it’s best to talk about trauma with adults who know how to handle it rather than peers, because, a teenager isn’t going to know exactly how to help. Plus, it can overwhelm a teenager.”
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4. Ask for School Support
While it may be uncomfortable or embarrassing to disclose your family’s trauma to strangers, it’s important to inform your child’s teacher, school administration and the school psychologist about the situation.
“[Mom] should let the school psychologist or guidance counselor and teachers know what the family has been through so that she has some additional support in And then there’s the safety factor. Be sure to notify the school about any protective orders or custody agreements in place.
“Inform your child’s teacher and administrators who is and is not allowed to pick your child up from school, even if he is dad, for example,” Howard says. “And kids should know that, too: Say, ‘these are the people allowed to pick you up.’”
5. Check-In Regularly
Children are incredibly resilient, but it’s still important to monitor their feelings and give them a safe space to discuss them.
“Kids who’ve been through trauma often can be fearful or worried. They can also be very angry, or something we call emotionally numb, which makes it hard to read how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking,” Howard says. “So, I would say to make sure that you check in regularly with your kids because it could be really hard to read them and understand what they’re thinking and going through.”
6. Get Outside Help
Depending on the situation and your child’s reaction, he or she may need additional help in the form of therapy.
“It’s always a great idea for kids who’ve been through a trauma like this to have some kind of counseling,” Howard says. “There are a lot of changes and distress related to everything that they’ve been through. And then navigating next steps, there’s a lot of change and uncertainty. A licensed counselor can help kids to cope with that. And they can be another person to be that skilled check-in.”
Counseling is particularly important for kids dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. Find out how to identify signs of PTSD in kids.
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