What Parents Need to Know to Ease Kids’ Re-Entry

As the Vermont summer heats up and the state reopens, children of all ages are re-engaging with the world through summer camps and expanded social interactions. But what if your child isn’t quite ready? How can parents best support their children’s mental health and ease the stress of re-engagement?

“A lot of people are worried about their kids,” says Clinical Psychologist Cath Burns, Ph.D., COVID Support VT’s clinical supervisor and quality director for Vermont Care Partners. In her private practice, Burns has noticed a second wave of anxiety in parents and kids as society reopens. “It got worse in the beginning of the pandemic, then it started to improve as people got accustomed to restrictions,” she says. “Now people are feeling anxious again as we start to re-enter.” 

More Children Needing Psychiatric Care

In a recent podcast, Robert Althoff, M.D., Ph.D., an adolescent psychiatrist based at UVM, says he has seen a 25 to 30 percent increase in the number of children seeking care for psychiatric problems. Vermont-based pediatrician Erica Gibson, M.D., echoed this observation. She noted that mental health concerns account for a greater proportion of visits to the state’s clinics, emergency rooms and private practices than before the pandemic.

Even kids who haven’t appeared to be struggling may need support now. Althoff points out that a small percentage of kids have actually done better than the rest of the population, but this may signify a different kind of challenge. 

“We have to pay special attention to the kids who weathered the pandemic exceptionally well.”

Robert Althoff, M.D. Ph.D.

He said:“Because the stressors from school and the stressors of social interchange at school have been so difficult for them pre-pandemic, the time during pandemic has actually been generally a bit easier. The problem with that is now, as we move towards re-integration, those kids are going to have a harder time. And so now, we have to pay special attention to the kids who weathered the pandemic exceptionally well.”

Four Ways to Support Your Child’s Re-Engagement

What’s a concerned parent to do? In a virtual workshop for COVID Support VT, Burns outlined four steps parents can take to support their children’s re-engagement.

  1. Follow the guidelines. Understand the Covid rules and regulations related to your child’s situation or activity and adhere to them.
  2. Start small. Don’t push your kids to jump right into a huge gathering or sleep-away camp. Maybe start with a playdate with one other friend and work up to larger gatherings. Involve them in the decision-making.
  3. Build comfort. Start by interacting with people you or your child knows well. Do something they love to do. Keep it simple. Pay attention to your child’s reactions and adjust as necessary.
  4. Get used to awkward conversations. It may feel uncomfortable to talk about vaccination status or to ask about mask-wearing. That’s okay. Model nonjudgmental questioning for your child, and invite them into the conversation.

Whose Anxiety Is It?

Burns advises parents to be mindful of their own stress levels, and how that affects their children. “Our kids are watching us,” she says. “If they see us being anxious, they will be anxious also. Instead, let them see us practicing self-care and healthy coping.” 

Burns offered five tips for parents to check their own stress level and keep it in check with self-care strategies.

  1. Know your stress cues. Understand your own physical and cognitive signs of anxiety. Learn how to identify stress triggers and interrupt the spiral of anxiety.
  2. Use healthy coping strategies. Learn what works for you to prevent and/or manage stress. Consider techniques such as deep breathing, distraction through exercise, visual imagery, or mindfulness meditation.
  3. Model stress tolerance. Kids need to understand that stress is a natural part of life and that we can still be happy and healthy even if we’re faced with anxiety or sadness.
  4. Practice a healthy lifestyle. Getting enough sleep, eating a healthy balanced diet, and exercising regularly are proven factors to improve resilience. Also be aware of your relationship to alcohol and other substances.
  5. Seek support if needed. You might find it helpful to talk with a trusted friend, neighbor, relative, faith-based minister, or mental-health professional. Don’t hide this from your child. Tell them why you’re doing it and help them understand that it’s okay to seek help, that it doesn’t mean you’re weak. Use the opportunity to break down the stigma of help-seeking.

Learn More and Find Resources 

Read other articles in our Parenting Series: 

Listen to Pediatric Mental Health During the Pandemic, a podcast from the University of Vermont featuring Vermont clinicians Robert Althoff, M.D., Ph.D., an adolescent psychiatrist, and pediatrician Erica Gibson, M.D.

Read 13 Tips for Helping Anxious Kids Enjoy Summer Camp, by the Child Mind Institute, which features a useful list of tools for taming anxiety.  

Learn more about how to support children’s re-engagement and mental health with our list of Parent and Caregiver COVID-19 Resources.

Visit our website to learn about upcoming workshops and town halls.

Blog written by Brenda Patoine on behalf of VCN/Vermont Care Partners for COVID Support Vermont, a grant funded by FEMA and the Vermont Department of Mental Health

Need to Talk?

Call 2-1-1 (in Vermont) for assistance.

In Crisis? 

If you or someone you care for is experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm, you can: call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-825; text VT to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Counselor 24/7; connect with your local community mental health center for 24/7 support. 

Find Help

Find resources and tools for coping with stress at www.COVIDSupportVT.org.

One-click translation to 100 languages of most everything on the COVIDSupportVT.org website, plus Multilingual Resources.

Find your local community mental health center by visiting Vermont Care Partners.

COVID Support VT is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency, managed by Vermont’s Department of Mental Health, and administered by Vermont Care Partners, a statewide network of 16 non-profit community-based agencies providing mental health, substance use, and intellectual and developmental disability services and supports. 

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