Whether your children are attending school in-person or continuing their education online, this school year will be unlike any other to come before it.

As the aspects of daily life continue to evolve and adapt in response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, parents and guardians face yet another new question on how to talk openly and honestly with kids and teens about what the near future holds. Pediatric mental health experts across the region say one of the first steps toward the answer to that question is to do just that: talk.

But before you do, experts recommend talking through your own thoughts and feelings with your partner or spouse first. Heading into a difficult conversation without first processing your own emotions can stifle conversation, they say, and may even affect your child.

"It’s really important when you are ready to start talking to children about what’s going on what school is going to look like, that you have come to a place where you can mostly be taking ownership and responsibility for your own emotions around this topic," Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota mental health therapist Sarah Wicks said. "I think if adults are filled with a lot of anger, anxiety, worry, stress — that is going to be easily picked up on by kids."

Still, experts cautioned against trying to spare your child's feelings by being disingenuous.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

"It’s actually really good to let your kids know that you have some emotions, that you’re uncertain of what’s going to happen," said Stephen Whiteside, a pediatric psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic Children's Center. "But very importantly, is that you show your kids that 'yes, that’s difficult, but I can handle it.'"

Dr. Stephen Whiteside. Submitted photo.
Dr. Stephen Whiteside. Submitted photo.


Experts recommend emphasizing in conversation what little we do know for certain. Wicks acknowledged that may be difficult considering the ever-changing nature of life during a pandemic. Some businesses, restaurants and schools may be selectively forced to again shut down temporarily if the spread of COVID-19 in their communities, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, becomes too difficult to control.

"I always like to tell families to try, when they’re talking to their children, to focus on what is certain versus what is unknown," Wicks said.

Wicks said, for example, one might point out that we at least know the formats in which school may be conducted: entirely in person, by computer at home or through a mix of the two. If your child is returning to an in-person learning environment, one might talk about what their experience may look like.

"It’s going to be different," said Nate Bailly, a school counselor in Fergus Falls, Minn., and president of the West Central Minnesota School Counselor Association. "We’re going to be wearing masks, teachers are going to have PPE, some of them might have face shields. That’s a striking difference from last year’s school experience, and that can be really scary for kids."

If you're unsure of what to talk about as school resumes, and even as it continues, experts advise monitoring your kids or teens for signs of distress. Signs can include anything from emotional outbursts in children to social withdrawal among teens, and often vary by age.

Children, though, even younger ones, likely have a better understanding of and ability to cope with the situation at hand than their parents and guardians may think, experts said. Have a frank conversation with your child, they said, and you may even be surprised by what they share.

"As parents, we should never assume that our children are responding to a situation the same way that we are," Whiteside said. "We shouldn’t make the assumption that just because we’re worried and overwhelmed that kids are as well."

Even so, experts said, it's important to try and remain positive during those conversations. Bailly said, for example to remind children that the inconveniences and adaptations brought on by the pandemic are only temporary.

"We are going to get through this," he said. "School districts are well-equipped with the guidance that we’ve been receiving from the state Department of Health, the state Department of Education."

Maintain connections and structure

Regardless of whether your child will return this fall to a physical classroom or not, experts recommend that you take a hand in maintaining their social connections. For younger children, you might reach out to the parents or guardians of their friends, or to close relatives and grandparents, to arrange virtual play dates and visits.

"Although it’s not as satisfying to have a family group get-together where everyone is little squares on a screen, it’s much better than having no contact," Whiteside said.

Bailly said to encourage kids and teens to stay in touch with their friends on their own time whether by phone or computer, too. In the event that your child resumes school in an online-only setting, though, experts do say to be wary of the amount of time they spend in front of a screen.

Too much screen-time, Wicks said, can harm a child or teen's development.

Maintaining structure for a child learning at home this fall may be difficult, perhaps most of all for working households. But that reality is one that experts say parents must confront.

"There’s a limit to what you can do in terms of simultaneously being a parent, a school teacher or daycare provider, and doing a job. You can’t expect yourself to do all three of those things day in and day out," Whiteside said.