Helping Kids Manage Anxiety and Ease Back Into Activities This Summer

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As a most unusual—and exhausting—school year winds down, families are looking at a summer of changing pandemic rules and new possibilities. For many kids, there’s excitement about camp and beach vacations. But there are a lot of questions and anxiety during this transition, too, psychologists say.

“We’re seeing a lot of difficulties as we try to get kids to go back to normal,” says Eli R. Lebowitz, associate professor in the Child Study Center at Yale School of Medicine. Changing rules around mask wearing and social distancing is creating confusion and spurring fear in some kids, he says. And for children who have spent more than a year doing remote learning, the prospect of heading back to in-person school in the fall can be daunting. That’s especially true for kids who are socially anxious and for whom online learning has been a welcome respite from playground squabbles and lunchroom drama.

We talked to psychologists about how to help children recover from the pandemic year and prepare for the new school year ahead. Here’s their advice:

Provide accurate and age-appropriate information

In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidelines for camps saying that at camps where not everyone is fully vaccinated, children can go without masks most of the time when they are outside, unless conditions are crowded and there is sustained close contact. The agency has also said fully vaccinated people don’t have to wear masks in most situations, either indoors or outdoors. The directives have prompted changes in protocols everywhere from grocery stores to kids’ sports. These shifts can be distressing for children, says Dr. Lebowitz.

“We’ve spent a year teaching kids that social contact is dangerous and everybody is a potential carrier of this virus that can kill your grandparents. Suddenly now it’s OK and it’s really confusing,” he says.

Dr. Lebowitz advises parents to be “really forthcoming and frank” in explaining the changes in an age-appropriate way. For very young children, this might mean simply saying, “This is what the doctors are telling us to do and this is how we stay well,” says Dr. Lebowitz, who developed, along with colleagues, a treatment called Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions (SPACE), where parents learn tactics that can lessen children’s anxiety symptoms. For older children, parents can explain how scientists now understand that the virus is much less likely to be transmitted outdoors. “The more kids can understand the requirements, rather than seeing them as arbitrary or mysterious, the easier it is going to be for them to adjust,” he says.

And if your child feels more comfortable continuing to wear a mask outside, let them, says Jill Ehrenreich-May, a professor of psychology at the University of Miami. “Follow their comfort level,” she says.

Identify childrens’ core fears

When a child expresses fears around the pandemic, “a lot of times it’s not actually about Covid,” says Erika J. Vivyan, a psychologist in Austin, Texas. Instead, it could be “I don’t want to see other kids because they might be mean to me. Or what if I’m wearing the wrong thing or what if I gained weight or lost weight during Covid?” she says.

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Once you identify your child’s fear, acknowledge it, says Paul Greene, a clinical psychologist in New York. “Don’t dismiss your kids’ anxiety. Listen to them, empathize and assure them that this is something they can handle.” If you skip the empathy step, “the kid is going to feel unheard. They will find your advice less credible and may even start to feel a little badly about themselves,” he says.

Research suggests that labeling emotions like sadness and anxiety can help reduce those feelings, notes Richa Bhatia, a psychiatrist in Santa Rosa, Calif. “Identifying feelings is an important first step to process them and cope with them,” she says.

Prioritize social connections

For some children, more than a year of remote schooling and social isolation have caused friendships to wither and social skills to atrophy. But friendships are critical to children’s development and emotional well-being, says Mary Alvord, a psychologist in Chevy Chase, Md. “It is really important to get them back with friends and developing that support system,” Dr. Alvord says. Building strong social connections will set them up for academic success in the fall, too, she says. “If they are sad, depressed and anxious, it’s hard to have the brain space to really focus,” she says.

Dr. Ehrenreich-May is recommending that her patients, particularly those with social anxiety, attend camp or summer school.

Practice for the upcoming school year

Dr. Lebowitz at Yale advises parents to use this summer to “set the stage for the kinds of behaviors you want to see during the school year. Try to break out the different challenges so they don’t all happen on the first day of school.” For example, if parents and children have been together most of the time during the pandemic, “practice spending time apart,” he says, so the separation isn’t jarring when school starts. Do in-person playdates, so kids are used to socializing.

Visit the school—especially if a child is transitioning to a new one—even if you can’t go inside, says Dr. Alvord. “Walk around the grounds, familiarize them with the route. The more we know, the more we feel in control and the less anxious we are,” she says. See if you can schedule a Zoom call with your child’s new teacher.

Focus on the basics

In many families, sleep schedules, exercise routines and screen-time rules went on hiatus during the pandemic. Now is the time to reinstate them, says Dr. Alvord. Going to sleep late and not getting enough sleep has been linked to anxiety in children. Exercise can improve mood.

Teach—and model—positive coping strategies

When children get stressed out or overwhelmed, teach them to “use positive self-talk,” says Erlanger A. Turner, an assistant professor of psychology at Pepperdine University. Instead of “this is difficult, I’m never going to get over this,” tell yourself that “things are difficult right now, but I’m going to be OK,” says Dr. Turner, who founded the organization Therapy for Black Kids in February.

He also suggests having children identify things they are grateful for. Expressing gratitude “promotes positive well-being, reduces anxiety and helps reduce symptoms of depression,” Dr. Turner says.

Dr. Bhatia suggests mindfulness and relaxation strategies children can use when anxiety surges. Young children can practice “spaghetti body,” where they relax their muscles. Older children can do a simple breathing exercise: Inhale slowly through the nose for a count of four; hold the breath for four and then slowly exhale for four.

Parents also need to address their own anxiety, since it “gets communicated to kids without even words,” says Anne Marie Albano, a professor of medical psychology in psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York. Psychologists recommend that if parents are worried about how their children are coping or if the anxiety is interfering with their kids’ ability to function, it is time to contact the pediatrician or get an evaluation by a mental health professional.

Write to Andrea Petersen at andrea.petersen@wsj.com

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