First day of school pics seem to be everywhere. You can’t open social media without seeing your neighbor’s daughter, your friend’s kid, or your colleague’s granddaughter smiling in their first day outfit, holding up a sign, and proudly announcing which grade they’re going into. The images look so hopeful, so happy and confident. But this school year, there’s often a lot more going on behind those smiling faces.
Studies show that girls in our country are facing an unprecedented mental health crisis. Before COVID, more than one in three were already saying they felt extremely anxious on a daily basis—and the pandemic has made the situation worse. Legitimate fears over getting sick or losing loved ones, coupled with troubling national and global news and the inability to easily see friends and socialize as usual, have all led to increased anxiety, depression, and even suicide among young people.
Obviously, kids today are dealing with much more than the normal back to school nerves caused by bullies, crushes, friend groups, plain old academic pressure, and even the threat of school violence. And the question of whether or not schools are properly equipped to open in-person classrooms safely again—especially when most school-age children are still not eligible to be vaccinated and mask policies vary—isn’t just worrying a lot of adults. Kids are hearing the conversation and know they’re the ones who will likely be most affected.
So how can you support your girl and help keep her centered as she makes the transition back to in-person learning?
Let her know it’s OK to not be OK.
You’re not the only ones seeing all those social pics of seemingly happy, fashion-forward kids going back to school—your girl is being flooded with them, too, and could be wondering if she’s the only one feeling less than psyched about the school year. Take a minute to ask about her feelings and really listen without interrupting or telling her that she has nothing to worry about. What she’s going through is real, and if you brush it off as no big deal, she could be less likely to turn to you in the future when she needs your support. After you hear her out, remind her that what we see on social media often doesn’t reflect reality, and that a lot of her friends and classmates are probably facing similar struggles of their own, whether or not they’re sharing them with the world.
Shift your expectations.
Take a deep breath and think about the circumstances your child is living through before getting upset about a lower-than-usual grade or encouraging her to add yet another activity to her schedule. There’s so much on everyone’s plate mentally and emotionally right now, that it’s ok if she’s not achieving at her usual level, is having trouble concentrating, or doesn’t feel up to pushing herself. Let her know that you’re proud of her for trying her best in these tricky times, and that you’re on her team no matter what.
Stop the body shaming.
Going back to school after even just a summer away can cause body image anxiety in girls. Is she now too tall or not tall enough? Is she the only one who started wearing a bra or the only one who didn’t? And then there’s the weight issue. Nearly one in three parents are reporting that their kids have gained unwanted weight since the start of COVID. And given that a full 80 percent of ten-year-old girls were afraid of being fat before the pandemic hit, there’s likely even more anxiety and stress around body sizes this year. So if you’re tempted to make a joke about the COVID-15, having to size-up on back to school clothes, or basically anything else having to do with her body? Just don’t.
Help her get some air.
She’s spent a lot of time over the past year and a half at home, likely with you or other family there to support her. Heading off to school, she won’t have her room to retreat to if she feels overwhelmed or you to bring her favorite snack when she’s having a hard time. Help her practice deep breathing exercises, find a small and quiet fidget toy that she could stash in her backpack, or work together to come up with coping strategies that could help her through the day. Believe it or not, sometimes just having a plan of how to stay calm can help people stay calm.
Talking with your girl and supporting her through this time of transition can give you a sense of calm and control as well. Remember to be kind to yourself—and your whole family—as you adjust to this new school year. It might not always be easy, but you can do this.
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