For most kids in Japan, school is back in session after the summer break. Those following the Japanese school calendar have just started their second term, while most international school students will have moved up a grade. Parents usually welcome this season with a collective sigh of relief, but this year the ongoing pandemic has added a whole new layer of stress about returning to the classroom.

Emma Sasaki has two children, aged 8 and 13, attending Japanese school. “Luckily, my city started offering vaccines for kids aged 12 and up, so my older one has had her first shot, but many of her classmates haven’t. She sees the news about the growing numbers of young people catching COVID-19 here and worries about her friends and those at her school getting it, and then having to shut down the whole school,” she says.

In an attempt to allay fears about catching COVID-19, some Japanese schools have been offering a “hybrid” approach, which lets students choose whether to attend class as usual, or join online from home. However, caregivers of younger children say the technical challenges of remote learning require a constant adult presence for it to really be effective.

Sasaki says her 8-year-old son is happy to be back in the classroom after a summer spent mostly at home, but has expressed frustration at the ongoing social distancing measures at his school and all the canceled events. “I appreciate that the school is doing what they can to keep everyone safe, but kids deserve to be carefree! I do worry about the long-term effects on their social development,” she admits.

Two experts from TELL who specialize in working with young people and schools offer some reassuring insights and tips to help kids and parents alike navigate these stressful times.

Watch for signs

In addition to her work as a psychotherapist at TELL, Ashly Schanback Ishii is a counselor at the United School of Tokyo. She says kids will definitely be affected by what they see the adults around them doing, and this can directly impact the way children perceive and handle COVID-19-related stress.

“The older the child, the more likely they will be aware of the risks associated with COVID variants, as relayed by their caregiver(s) or social media and news outlets. This information can contribute directly to anxiety symptoms for children as they head back into the classroom, but children can also be indirectly affected by the anxiety they observe in their caregivers, teachers and other adults,” Ishii says. “For younger children, they are less likely to be directly affected by pandemic information and more likely to be affected by how adults around them handle things.”

Ishii points out that there are various signs that might indicate a youngster is feeling stressed: Red flags in younger children include bedwetting and sleep difficulties, as well as general irritability, clinginess or tearfulness. For older children, you might see a lack of confidence to try new things, difficulty concentrating, issues with eating or sleeping, negative thought patterns, emotional outbursts and avoiding (or wanting to avoid) everyday activities, such as going to school.

Positive modeling

Since kids will take their cues from adults, Ishii says that “modeling” balance and productive behavior is important.

“Children learn most by observing and mimicking adults, so we can best show them how to manage anxiety and stress. For general stress management, nothing beats healthy eating, exercise and regular sleep schedules, so caregivers should start there,” she says.

However, when things become overwhelming, helping kids to find healthy outlets for venting their frustration or even anger can be very helpful. One recommended resource is Positive Discipline’s Anger Wheel of Choice, which lets kids know it is OK to have these feelings and teaches constructive, healthy coping mechanisms. Ishii suggests that coming up with ways to deal with frustration together can also be bonding for a family, such as squeezing a pillow or other safe object and expressing feelings with pictures.

Coping checklist

Alejandra Reyes is a clinical psychologist for TELL and a counselor at The British School in Tokyo. “When kids experience continuous stress it can add to previous difficulties — say if before the pandemic the child struggled with social skills, then these may have lagged even more due to social distancing, lack of social events and face masks,” she notes.

Reyes offers the following helpful tips for parents to consider:

Validate their feelings. It is important to let your child know that experiencing any emotions, even unpleasant ones, is normal. Emphasizing that you see something is troubling them helps kids feel accepted and safe.

Review safety measures. These can change from day to day. You want children to focus on what they can do to stay healthy. Using visual resources or prompts such as stories, puppets or videos can help. Only use age-appropriate information from reliable resources. Ask them about what they have been doing to keep healthy, and praise their efforts to keep them motivated. Remind them that their actions have an effect on others — it is supporting and helping their loved ones, too.

Have a routine. This helps create an atmosphere of consistency and sense of control. Parents need to collaborate with kids, allowing kids to develop a sense of personal responsibility so they’ll get on board with the routine. Be open to fun ideas like eating breakfast for dinner, or having older kids share music or video playlists during meals.

Create time for connection. With physical-distancing restrictions and face masks still recommended, adults need to build in extra time to be with their children that doesn’t involve school or academics. Creating moments of connection with them using their body and minds will cover different areas of development that the pandemic has disrupted. Some research-based suggestions, plus some of Reyes’ personal ones, are exercising or playing sports; doing yoga; practicing mindfulness; trying breathing exercises; getting out in nature for a walk, run or bicycle ride; attempting a new activity or hobby together such as jigsaw puzzles, board games, card tricks, art projects or cooking a new dish; and giving a new twist to an old routine. These will help foster connections with children and build resiliency skills.

Talking to teens

While the above are important for children of all ages, both experts offered some extra advice for the often tricky topic of connecting with adolescents.

“Some teenagers might be hesitant to share what they think and feel at their particular developmental stage. In this case, it is helpful to let your teen know that you are available if they ever want to talk (but not to force them to do so), and to offer your teen additional options of other safe adults with whom they can connect,” Ishii says.

Reyes advises being creative when it comes to connecting with older kids. “Try to listen and stay curious by using open-ended questions and avoid any criticism. Remember that some might feel more comfortable texting rather than talking, so offering external resources available virtually can help,” she suggests.

Finally, parenting can be tough at the best of times, so don’t forget to cut yourself some slack or reach out to other adults when you feel overwhelmed during this extra-challenging period.

The TELL Lifeline is available for those who need free and anonymous counseling at 03-5774-0992. You can also visit telljp.com.

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