‘They will bounce back’: How parents can prepare kids for back-to-school after pandemic disruptions
A St. Joseph’s pediatrician shares how routine and self-care (for parents) can help
Parents and children are both preparing for a new school year, with the hope that it will be the first fully-uninterrupted school year taught entirely in-person since 2020. We spoke with Dr. Dilip Mehta, Director of the CIBC Just For Kids Clinic at St. Joseph’s Health Centre, about the impact of the pandemic on children, how parents can support their kids, and what families can expect for the upcoming flu season.
Q: The pandemic brought huge disruptions to families, including lockdowns, social distancing and the switch to online learning for students. What has been the impact of these disruptions on children?
Mehta: The pandemic has had a large effect on children and families; it was very hard and it impacted children’s health. Throughout the past two-and-a-half years we’ve seen in our young patients an increase in mental health issues, poorer diets and a lack of physical activity. A lot of this is due to the disruptions in their daily routines, including the switch to online learning. Children were often not able to focus online for that many hours. And for parents, the extra task of having to supervise their children’s online learning, in addition to the regular care they provide and the jobs they work, was all quite damaging. There weren’t always easy solutions and there were times when anger could get out of control – so we’ve seen a lot of families presenting with mental health concerns. A lot of children would come in complaining of tummy aches, headaches or problems sleeping. You are always careful as a physician not to miss a diagnosis, but it often became apparent that the underlying issue was anxiety and even depression.
Adding to this was the lack of physical activity for children during the pandemic. A lot of kids stopped doing regular physical activity, as many of their extra-curriculars were cancelled. Physical health and physical activity are critical for children’s mental health, and it was limited during the pandemic.
Another issue for many children is that their diet became quite poor during the pandemic and there’s been a significant increase in dietary and nutritional issues. We’ve noticed in their growth charts that a lot of young people have gained weight. We’re seeing this in teenagers, as well as in young children. This combined with the lack of exercise has been quite detrimental on the physical health of children.
Q: What are some ways parents can support their children and address some of these issues?
Mehta: The first thing parents can do is get back to a routine, because many kids have lacked a consistent routine for some time now. We hear that some of our patients are not going to bed until midnight or 1 a.m. in the morning. So go back and re-establish a routine. Make sure children get back to healthy eating with lots of vegetables, fruits and fiber intake to optimize learning.
There will be some children who will be lacking social skills because they haven’t had a good chance to meet other kids and relate to them. There will also be some children who have spent the last two school years doing only online learning. Parents can work on helping their children develop these social skills before the start of school.
As September approaches, some parents may encounter their children refusing to return to school. They can get their children used to the idea of going back by talking to them about it, bringing them to the school a few times before September, and practice packing their school bags together.
For more urgent and immediate mental health concerns, parents shouldn’t hesitate to seek professional help. A big barrier is that often psychological services aren’t covered by OHIP. Two centres that do offer OHIP-covered mental health support to families are the George Hull Centre and the Hincks Dellcrest Centre. There are also online resources that parents can access. Remember, kids present with symptoms very differently, so there’s not one easy solution for everybody.
Q: What are some other things parents should be aware of in terms of illnesses for the upcoming flu season?
Mehta: Viruses are presenting later in the year than usual and that’s part of the reason why the clinic and doctors’ offices are so busy. A lot of this is due to the lifting of distancing and masking restrictions, and the return of in-person schooling. Everything that was on hold for the last two years of the pandemic has now come back in full force. We’ve seen everything from Hand, Foot and Mouth disease, stomach flu, cellulitis infections and pneumonia. In the summertime we don’t often see children in the hospital for illnesses, we see more fractures and injuries. But this year, it’s been medical illnesses. Parents should ensure that routine immunizations are up-to-date as many vaccines have been missed or delayed due to the pandemic.
If parents are concerned about their children’s health, it’s always good to bring them to see a doctor. However, for mild fever or other viruses there’s no need to rush – children can be monitored and supported by their parents for a few days and often these illnesses will pass on their own.
Finally, it’s good to remind parents that they need to take time to care for themselves—do an activity you enjoy or connect with friends! Your health is important too, and you can’t help your children if you are not well. The past two years have been stressful and scary, but kids are resilient and with support they will bounce back for sure.
The CIBC Just For Kids Clinic is a clinic for children that provides care for newborns and up to a child’s 18th birthday. The clinic is staffed by pediatricians who provide services to patients whose family doctors are unavailable.
As told to Marlene Leung. This interview has been edited and condensed.