COVID-19: Vaccines, boosters, testing, and visitor guidelines. Please use ER for emergencies only.

How to help children with re-entry anxiety

Mental Health | August 24, 2021
Mother and daughter in mask hug at a gate outside school
Learn the signs and how to help your child cope with anxiety brought on by a return to pre-pandemic activities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on everyone—but especially kids.

From the sudden shift to remote learning and few or no playdates to no (or restricted) visits with extended family and lots of safety rules, children had to quickly adjust from their pre-pandemic experience.

As some areas reopen and a few rules are relaxed, some children can experience re-emergence or re-entry anxiety.

“It’s been months of social distancing so the transition for young people to what was formerly normal can be a challenge,” said Camille Moreno, PsyD, clinical manager of PeaceHealth’s Cascade Park Clinic. “As parents, we have the benefit of life experience to understand what is temporary. Young children haven’t lived long enough to see the bigger picture.“

As families move back toward routines that look more like the old ones, it can be common for children to feel anxious about it.

One thing we have learned over the past year-and-a-half is that "normal" is relative.

Most children thrive on predictability. They find comfort in what’s familiar because they’re still getting to know the world and their place in it.

For the past year, limited social interaction and remote school have become their norm. Disrupting those now-established patterns can make some youngsters uncomfortable.

As with everything COVID-19 related, there is no clear roadmap for finding your way through these challenges. Every family will have different comfort levels with re-entry.

To effectively help their children, parents must recognize and process their own emotions about returning to pre-pandemic activities. “Children closely watch for cues from those around them to decide whether they should be nervous,” Dr. Moreno said. Look for ways you may inadvertently give signals to your child to be anxious.

Signs of anxiety to watch for

Signs of re-emergence anxiety will vary depending on a child's personality and age. Children in the same household may display different signs or levels of anxiety. Below are some potential signs of "post-pandemic" anxiety in children.

Changes in eating and sleeping

Classic signs of anxiety in children are issues about food and appetite or sleep. A loss of appetite, fussiness in eating, or extra comfort eating are signs something is amiss.

Sleeping patterns may shift with sleep disturbances, nightmares, waking in the night, and insomnia. Children may also have trouble falling or staying asleep or end up sleeping more during the day.

Eating and sleep disorders can have a significant impact on your child's overall wellbeing.  Talk to your child’s provider if trying the tips below don’t help.

Withdrawal and avoidance

Another common sign of something wrong is when a child withdraws from or avoids activities they once enjoyed. If your child enjoyed time with friends or school, and now says he’s not interested, take note.

Overcome avoidant behaviors by engaging in small yet active steps toward re-entry. For example, as children get used to socializing again, try shorter playdates or playdates with only one friend at a time. Follow your child's lead and adjust the activity to fit their comfort level. Let your child know you recognize their courage and progress during this process. 

Irritability, temper tantrums, and regressive behaviors

Has your child suddenly become moody or easily irritable? Are they displaying regressive behaviors like wetting their pants again, sucking their thumb, or throwing a tantrum? These behaviors in younger children can signify anxiety and result from their inability to express their feelings.

Offer comfort and reassurance rather than shame. Listen to what the child is telling you and provide them with the language to better understand their inner experience.

Parents can use a feelings chart or emotions wheel with their children to help them identify and label specific emotions. This allows them to connect with their feelings and communicate them more effectively.

Nervousness and worry

An increase in nervousness and worry is another sign of anxiety. Children face several uncertainties about the return to school. Will we wear masks? Will I get sick? Will school be interrupted again? And many may worry about being behind in school, seeing old friends and making new friends, and about being separated from their family after spending time at home.

Help children understand and manage their worry. Regularly check in with them and get them comfortable talking about what’s on their minds. Encourage your child to share their feelings by providing a safe space for honest expression and taking a calm, nonjudgmental stance.

Fear of separation

With parents working from home and children remote learning, many families have spent much more time together than in the past. Some children—especially those who enjoyed staying home—may find it overwhelming to go back to school or be alone in a group of children. This anxiety could come from being in an unfamiliar social situation, a fear of illness, or feeling unsafe outside of the home.

Parents can encourage social engagement and empower their children to practice socializing. For example, set up short, supervised play dates with other children. Over time, play dates can last longer. And, if appropriate, let the kids play in the next room so your child can gain confidence in being alone with friends.

You can ease the fear of returning to school by talking to your child about returning to the classroom and visiting the school or meeting the teacher ahead of time.

Declining academic performance

Once your child is back in school, check on their academic performance. A lack of engagement in the classroom or bad grades may indicate your child is anxious at school. They may be feeling like they didn't learn as well as some classmates did with remote learning, or they could be uncertain about the social capabilities following the time away.

Ways to help your child

In addition to the methods mentioned above, there are many ways parents can help their children cope.

Talk about their anxiety

Start by creating an open and supportive environment where children and teens know they can ask questions and express their worries. Acknowledge your child's anxiety while focusing their energy on aspects of life that they can control. Name the emotion and normalize the experience to clarify that their feelings aren't "bad" but may be uncomfortable and challenging. This exercise will help a child understand that their feelings are valid and normal.

Establish coping mechanisms

Once you have helped your child name the emotion, talk about what they can do to feel better.  Knowing how to cope with an emotion lessens the power it has over them.

Here are a few suggested coping strategies:

  • reading a favorite book
  • writing in a journal
  • drawing pictures
  • doing other art projects
  • listening to calming music
  • being physically active (high-intensity activity is especially great for regulating hormones associated with anxiety)

Finally, limit children's exposure to the news and media. Even if they are not "paying attention" to it, they pick up on more than parents realize.

Don't make unrealistic promises

While it may be easy to tell your child things will get better, don't make promises you cannot keep. Give comfort and support, but keep things simple and straightforward. Honestly answer questions using words and concepts that your child can understand.

Include teachers and other caregivers

Talk with your child’s teacher or other caregiver about the concerns or worries your child may have. Elicit their support of your child. Let them know what you are doing to support your child at home. Ask the teacher how they want your child to approach them if your child feels worried or scared while at school. Help your child identify how they will get help if they need someone to talk to while at school.

Recognize caution from anxiety

It can be challenging to separate caution due to legitimate fears from unnecessary fear. Remind your children of how you have stayed safe and continue to stay safe, even as the intensity of the pandemic changes.

Maintain positive changes from the lockdown

Continue those helpful habits and practices you picked up at the start of the pandemic. Keep incorporating new routines and traditions your family has enjoyed even when things resume to a more "normal" pattern. Decide what matters the most to you and your family, and prioritize accordingly.

Practice patience

Be gentle with yourself and your children during this process. It is okay if your child or family is slower (or faster) than other families in your re-entry planning. Do what’s comfortable for all involved and give each other grace.

Prepare to pivot

Even as you help your child prepare for going back to in-person activities, keep in mind the possible need to return to remote or virtual options. Is the number of COVID-19 cases surging where you live? Do what you and your family can do to limit your potential exposure, even if that means making a choice that others are not making.

“The last year and a half has taught us that conditions change and that the way we best keep ourselves and our families safe may change too,” said Dr. Moreno. “While the constant sense of uncertainty gets tiring, each of us needs to stay informed and take action that fits our needs within the current circumstances.”

When to seek professional help

If your child’s anxiety interferes with daily life in major ways, proactively seek professional support.  It’s better to get help sooner than later.

Start with your child's pediatrician or primary care provider, who can recommend other professional services, if necessary.

Related Content