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How to protect your student's mental, emotional health

Amid all of the back-to-school uncertainty, you can help your child stay calm

ST. LOUIS — Even if things aren't as “back to normal” as most people hoped it’d be by now, it's time again for back to school, and a whole new list of stresses for children.

“Keeping an open dialogue with your child and asking them constantly how they're feeling, addressing those concerns,” said Alexander Davis, a psychiatric nurse practitioner at Provident Counseling.

He said it's critical to ask your children open-ended questions about how they're feeling about school and social situations but don't put your own fears or frustrations onto them.

“The child will follow your lead,” he said.

Washington University psychologist Dr. Tim Bono emphasized the importance of modeling positive responses.

“Kids take their cues from us for how to respond/behave during times of ambiguity. Display optimism and a willingness to adopt the recommended changes, acknowledging that these are the steps that help us get to the other side of the pandemic more quickly,” he said in an email.

That doesn’t mean pretending everything is OK or even masking your own concerns. Validating and voicing shared worries helps underscore the positive response you’re modeling.

Especially for children who've spent most of the last two school years virtual, take them to ice-cream socials, open houses, and other small group events to reintroduce those all-important interactions, especially for younger kids. Davis suggested maybe walk around the school building again if it's been a while, and have an open and honest plan about what will happen if that building closes again or they have to stay home.

“Really kind of explain that process or if we have a backup, or if we do have be in quarantine or do two weeks, this is going to be the plan, and then we'll be right back in it, and kind of explain all that to the child kind of make them feel much more comfortable,” he said. “By addressing that right up front, the kid is thinking about it already there's been chance so by kind of getting that out in the open, that child's allowed to kind of talk about that in a safe environment.”

Davis also encouraged getting children back into healthy sleep schedules sooner than later to help them feel their most energetic selves once back in the classroom.

RELATED: Sleep expert tackles back-to-school bedtime help

It’s also important to note, Bono said, that not everyone in the classroom has been following the same rules all summer.

“I think this is an opportunity to teach a child empathy and perspective-taking. Explain upfront that not everyone is going to be wearing a mask, and that everyone has different reasons for their decisions in that regard, and that it’s important to respect others’ decisions, even if we do not agree with them,” he said. “If someone asks the child about their decision, you might prepare them with a simple explanation as to why your family has made your decision, but to avoid a drawn-out or contentious exchange.

The two mental health experts say a child's physical and emotional well-being are both essential this school year.

For a list of mostly free mental health resources available around St. Louis courtesy of Start Here, click here.

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