"Uncertainty" seems to be the key word to describe the return to in-person learning in New Jersey this fall.

With worries of the highly contagious Delta COVID variant, those under 12 years old who cannot yet get vaccinated and the possible return of a mask mandate, there's a lot of anxiety among kids and parents.

But Dr. Steven Tobias, psychologist and director of The Center for Child and Family Development in Morristown, said parents need to understand that kids are resilient. While parents should not give blinded reassurances that things will be normal in September, they should be asking questions.

Talk you your kids about the pandemic

Don't make any assumptions that kids are having trouble coping or that they're worrying, but find out by talking to them about it. Tobias recommends having multiple conversations with the child about his/her feelings. Having one conversation just won't cut it.

Empathize with the child. He said validate a child's feelings. Doing that will help reassure them. Empathize with how hard it is to not know what's going to happen in September, Tobias said. Empathize with the fact that they may be upset over a possible mask mandate or that they may not be able to hang out with their friends in the cafeteria during lunch.

Kids can get through tough times

Once a parent asks open-ended questions and empathizes, Tobias said it's time to problem solve. Point out the kids have coped with this situation before and they will cope with it again, if needed. So if there is a mask mandate, help them understand that while it was uncomfortable and they didn't like it, they did learn to deal with it and it's the same thing this time around.

Some kids may also have a fear of even going back into a classroom. Many have not been back inside since March 2020. Tobias said any change of any kind can bring on anxiety, which is normal.

"It's OK if kids feel anxious, especially not having been in a classroom for over a year. It's going to be a more of an extreme in terms of the newness of it and the changes," Tobias said.

Don't worry about scaring kids about the pandemic

Parents should also know that it's very difficult to actually put ideas into kids' heads, Tobias said. So if a parent asks a kid if they're worried about the start of the school year or if they're worried about the virus, the new variant or the masks, he said that's not automatically going to have to kids start worrying about things. So fear not. Ask them open-ended questions such as, "Is there anything on your mind?" "Does anything have you worried?" Let the child tell the parent what they're thinking.

If children have a history of experiencing depression, anxiety and social difficulties in the past, Tobias said it would be a good idea to have the child checked out by a professional before the start of the school year.

Certain triggers to look for would include a change in sleeping habits, whether it's sleeping too much or not enough, changes in eating habits and changes in social interactions.

Remember that every child is different, Tobias said. There are some who are looking forward to the start of the brand new school year, virus or no virus, mask or no mask. Others are dreading it for, perhaps the same reasons or maybe that's just how they feel every year.

So talk to them and talk to them often.

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