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Managing 'Reopening Anxiety' And Tips To Spot It In Kids

Young girl appears anxious as she stares out a window.
Kids who have mostly stayed home during the pandemic might struggle to interact with friends when they resume summertime or classroom activities.

Getting back into social activities hasn't been easy for everyone, especially kids. We talked to an expert about how to recognize and address discomfort.

More and more people are returning to pre-COVID activities like going to the office or gathering with friends in public without masks. It's been a welcome relief for some, but can be stressful for others.

A survey conducted earlier this month by the Florida Association of Managing Entities, which works with behavioral health providers around the state, found one in three Floridians are experiencing more social anxiety than they did prior to the pandemic.

Health News Florida's Stephanie Colombini talked about "reopening anxiety" with Clara Reynolds, president and CEO of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay.

You say the Crisis Center has been getting a lot of calls from people uncomfortable getting back out there.

People are freaking out left and right, you know, socialization and making small talk around that water cooler, those are skills that have to be exercised on a regular basis. And when you haven't done it for a while, it can be very anxiety-provoking to remember how to do it, to not feel awkward.

And again, we still have this virus out there, and so people are still worried about the health and safety of themselves and their families. So sometimes you just need to call and vent that and talk about that. So we certainly have seen that with adults, but we've also seen it with children.

What are you seeing in kids?

I mean, you think about what we have done to our children, you know, right, wrong, or indifferent, history is going to tell us that, but we were told that we needed to protect children and keep these children closed up. And now all of a sudden, they're allowed to go out? It doesn't make sense to many children. And so helping parents be able to help their kids become comfortable again, I think, is very, very important.

Certainly we have seen throughout the pandemic people calling us with young, very young children – the temper tantruming, the loss of routines, the loss of developmental milestones, you know, that is all related to the trauma and stress that these children have experienced.

So it's not just for us adults, it's also for our young children, high school students, college students, I think across the board, we're going to see that this reintegration without masks, without virtual schooling anymore, that we're going to really have to work hard to reacclimate our kids. How do we socialize with one another? How do we get back on routines? How do we get back on schedules? So the fall should be a very busy time for us at the Crisis Center.

What are some things we can look for in kids that might signal they're having a hard time?

Certainly if anybody says they're having a hard time, listen to that, validate that. Don't say, “No, you're fine.” Please validate those feelings, particularly for young children.

It may be that before the pandemic, they were very comfortable with playdates, they were very comfortable going to sports. And now maybe they've got a bellyache and they don't feel like that they can do it. Certainly if you're seeing a temper tantrum, and you're seeing changes in eating or sleeping behaviors, all of those can be related to stress and anxiety.

There is help and support that you can give your little one to get your little one back on track, not just here at the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, but with other organizations: Champions for Children, the Early Learning Coalition, the Early Childhood Council, the Children's Board all have resources that will be able to help you with your young children.

Then with our teens and our kids heading off to college, you know, make sure they feel comfortable, that they are vaccinated, that they have everything that they need to move forward.

And just make sure you're continuing to have conversations with your kids. Show your own vulnerability. And then how do you help to deal with anxiety? You develop a plan. Let's practice, when you see your friend for the first time, what are you going to say? How are you going to be, where are you going to stand? Once you have a plan, the unknown is less anxious- invoking for you, and anxiety really is fear of the unknown.

So as we get ready to start back to school, particularly for kids who have not been in school for 18 months, it's going to be really important for parents to help reintegrate their kiddos back into that. Don't wait until the first day of school for kids to be with other kids. Please start introducing your child back into social routines, things that are fun before you introduce them to school, which is stressful by nature.

And how about adults who are struggling?

I think you have to be patient with yourself and recognize and own the fact that you're nervous and you're worried. Give yourself some permission to take the time and slowly reintegrate yourself. You don't have to do it all in one shot.

And you know what, if you go someplace and you get nervous and uncomfortable, it is okay to retreat and try again another day. We are all have dealt with an unbelievable community event. It is going to take us time to get back to whatever normal looks like, so again, give yourself some grace.

Ways to get help:

  • Dial 2-1-1, a free, confidential, 24/7 help line that connects callers with health and community services. Hillsborough County residents will reach the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay at 2-1-1.
  • Call 1-844-MyFLHLP (844-693-5457), a confidential helpline in Florida for pandemic needs.
  • Check out these resources from the National Alliance on Mental Illness' Florida chapter.
  • Check out these resources from Florida's Center for Child Welfare.
I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.
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