Supporting Kids’ Mental Health During Online School

Virtual school away from friends can be tough on kids' mental health. Here are some expert tips on supporting kids' mental health while they learn online during the pandemic.

The coronavirus pandemic affected all of us in one way or another. Some of us got sick or lost love ones, others were laid off or had to shutter their businesses and many of our kids had to make the sudden switch from in-person schooling to virtual learning. While virtual learning might seem like a simple swap — one that may seem less stressful for kids from a parent’s perspective — online school away from friends and after-school activities presents kids with a whole new set of challenges and stress, some of which can be harmful to their mental health. “A lot of people think that kids should just fall into online school easily, so it’s surprising when adults realize how stressful it is for them,” says Nancy Buyle, the school safety and student assistance consultant for Macomb Intermediate School District. “Their experience seems to be more isolation. They always had the opportunity to connect with people, and that’s stopped, so it’s a new type of stress.”

In addition to the feeling of isolation — and the typical stress associated with working toward academic success — kids are also picking up on their parents’ stress and are worrying about adding to it. “If their parents are experiencing adversity, kids wear that, and we know now that adults are more stressed with the economic downturn, so the kids feel that stress and don’t want to add to their parents’ adversity,” Buyle explains. “And it’s not that parents are putting it on the kids. It’s this overdeveloped sense of responsibility of things that (kids) don’t have responsibility for.”

Helping kids cope

While the pandemic has everyone feeling a bit off, if you start noticing changes in your kids’ personality, eating or sleeping habits, it may be time to step in. First step, Buyle says, is to manage your own stress before trying to help your kids through theirs. “It’s the same old cliché of putting on your own oxygen mask first,” she explains. “… A lot of time people avoid it, and a lot of times parents might not even know they are feeling that pressure, but you have to accept it.” After you accept your own stress, Buyle recommends parents talk to their kids and reassure them that they don’t need to worry about grown-up stuff. Beyond that, she suggests that parents set a routine that limits school time, so that kids aren’t working on homework well into the night and that they get back to some of the family time that many families really prioritized at the beginning of the pandemic. “Kids are starting to express this unrelenting feeling that school never stops and parents need to work with schools to make sure there is an end time to school,” Buyle says. “Get back to family and pull out the games, puzzles and do family things with people who are safe and in your bubble.” Also she encourages kids to put down their phones and go outside with friends, write a loved one or call them, to get some of the social interaction that they’d normally find in their school day. “We’re all trying to balance safety and we’re learning a lot from it,” Buyle adds. “One of those things is that “while kids say they hate going to school, they do appreciate being in school.”

If you or your family is feeling emotional distress due to the COVID-19 pandemic, help is available. There are many ways to connect with emotional-support services without the need to leave home. Check out Michigan’s StayWell program for more information.

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