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Back-to-School During COVID-19

Published on Sep. 09, 2020

A Parent's Guide to Coping with Fear, Anxiety, and the New What-If's

September is already here and it’s back to school for our children. If you find yourself feeling uneasy, frustrated, upset, or all of the above, you are not alone. COVID-19 crosses into nearly all areas of our lives, including our children’s educational experience. As we learn to navigate this unfamiliar new normal, there are steps you can take to balance your fear with confidence, your worry with acceptance, and your sadness with joy. Kids look to their parents’ behavior as an example to follow. Taking steps to alleviate your own anxiety, fear of the unknown, and stress can make a big impact on your child’s outlook and resilience

It All Starts with a Plan

Anxiety about the future or frustration with the way things are going – especially when they don't feel familiar or normal – can really paralyze us. This is partially because whenever we are put in a new situation (like returning to school during COVID-19) that our brain doesn't quite recognize, it can feel stressful or even scary. One effective way to combat these feelings is to create a game plan you can stick to. 

Start with the basics. If you have a choice between virtual or in-person schooling, begin there. What makes the most sense for you and your family in your current situation? Scott Wagner, MSW and Executive Director of Behavioral Health at Munson Healthcare, suggests creating a plan that focuses on your family's needs rather than modeling it on what everyone else is doing. To help you hone in on your family's needs, consider using a pros and cons list for each situation, which can give you more clarity.

Some important factors to consider as you plan include:

  • Your child's age
  • Opportunities for socialization (forming friendships and bonding with peers)
  • Any supports your child needs (more supervision, structure, extra tutoring, specialized services addressing disabilities, etc.)
  • Back-up plans for the unexpected (exposure to COVID-19 or an illness of any kind, for example).

"Once parents have a plan – whether at home, at school or hybrid – they should not revisit it each day," shares Wagner. "Parents don’t benefit by beating themselves up daily, wondering if they are doing the 'right thing.' In turn, standing more confident in your decision helps kids feel a sense of direction and security."

Wagner also suggests determining a timeline for your plan (i.e. we are going to do this for x weeks), "Then, unless something major happens such as a new governor's order, the whole family is organized around that plan," he says.

Do Routine Check-Ins

Once your decisions are made and your plan is in motion, plan on checking in with your child each day. Some questions to ask include,

How did your day (or lesson) go?

How are you feeling about it?

How are you getting from or managing class to class?

What are the new rules? How are you following them? What about others?

What did you like about your day?

What went well today?

"Try to ask questions that don’t just provide one-word answers," Wagner shares. "Ask specifics."

He suggests daily check-ins until you sense that your child is more at ease, followed by less frequent, but consistent check-ins so you can lend support as needed.  

Oh, the Uncertainty: Taming Your Thoughts

Even with a plan in hand and routine check-ins, doubt-filled thoughts are bound to come to mind. Feeling uncertainty is normal, and something we should accept as inevitable. But there are ways to alleviate the pressure this uncertainty brings.

When it comes to unwanted thoughts, we often assume we are limited to two choices: put up with them or push them aside altogether. But there's a third option that works to our advantage: simply observing our thoughts while keeping in mind that they're just thoughts. 

The idea of observing your thoughts without judgment is something you might already routinely practice or have attempted through meditation or mindfulness. But you don't have to officially meditate in order to put it into motion.

To get started, as the thoughts start to surface, remind yourself that they’re not actually real. After all, how many thoughts happen only in our minds and never in reality? The more we become aware of this separation between our private thoughts and reality, the less energy (aka power) we give them. 

Next, think of a strong visual that will help you observe and then release the thoughts that begin to swarm around you. For example, maybe you imagine your thoughts to be waves that wash in and out. In they come, and out they go. You don't have to judge yourself for having them. Just watch them roll in and out. Or perhaps you're sitting on a dock, watching the leaves (your thoughts) drop into the water and float away. All you're doing is noticing them. Then off they go. In time and with enough practice this approach can even reduce the number of troublesome thoughts that pop into mind.

A second approach is to simply call out your thoughts. Ask some questions back, such as:

  • Is this thought helping or hurting me?
  • Is it helping our family's short or long -term goals or hindering them?
  • What will I say a week from now, a year from now, or 10 years from now?
  • What’s the evidence for or against this thought?
  • Am I using “what if’s” and catastrophic outcomes that have not occurred?

Another way to cope with thoughts of uncertainty and what-ifs is to look to the past. What other times in your life have you dealt with uncertainty? How did you cope then? What helped? What didn’t?

As you gently release your thoughts of doubt, fear, and uncertainty, remember to identify alternative beliefs that can replace them. Dr. Michael Lucido, PhD, a clinical psychologist with Munson Healthcare Charlevoix Hospital shares some of his go-to’s:

We did the best we could.

We will get through this.

We are survivors.

We will stay in the moment.    

We can safely let go of control.  

We can accept appropriate responsibility.  

We can get through this.

Facing Your Deep-Down Feelings

With thoughts come the feelings. Like thoughts, feelings can be difficult to cope with - especially ones that feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. Remember that all feelings are equally deserving of attention, and facing or "sitting with" our feelings is the path to moving forward. Get curious about your emotions so you can get to the root of what you're really feeling.

One commonly felt emotion for parents during this time is grief. What may be showing up as stress, anger, or avoidance is really just a deep sadness or heartbreak for your child –especially if you are focused on the experiences he/she may be missing out on.

"We are dealing with the grief of losing the school experience for our kids that we had," Dr. Lucido explains. "This includes the denial that this shouldn’t be happening and that they shouldn’t have to wear masks or attend school face-to-face. Rather than the usual feelings of back-to-school excitement, there's depression and sadness - perhaps even some feelings that our children are experiencing a loss of innocence."

How can you ever make up for this loss, you might wonder?

Dr. Lucido, whose own daughter recently began kindergarten, reminds us of the importance of keeping a frame of reference, or the way we individually see the world, in mind. He reflects on her first day of school.

"She was ready before we were! She was beaming the whole ride in and could not be more thrilled to begin this new milestone in life.  We took all the pictures that we could without the mask while honoring social distancing, placed her mask on before we walked her up to the school, and she cheerfully bounced up with the sun rising in the background, finally off to school. I could not have asked for a better start for her," he shared.

"With the masks, thermometers, and possibility of distance learning, she knows that this is a way of us staying healthy and being strong through these times. One of my family members remarked, 'Isn’t that so sad that she has to wear a mask?' and I replied that really it makes no difference to her. She was beyond enthusiastic to start school, and masks or thermometer checks do not impact her frame of reference and how she was looking forward to seeing her teacher and making new friends. My past references or how others had started their children off on years prior does not really matter. What matters is her brightness now and the joyful feelings we can experience through her."  

A child doesn't have to be as young as five for you to consider his/ her frame of reference. Regardless of age, each year and season brings with it something new your child has yet to experience. While you might mourn the loss of a specific experience based on your own childhood, gently remind yourself that your child doesn't have the same points of comparison. In other words, they cannot miss out on something they haven't yet experienced.

Focusing More on What You CAN Control

In addition to keeping your child's frame of reference in mind, Dr. Lucido recommends focusing on the emotions that make sense – what you can control versus what you can’t.

"There is a sadness, anger, disappointment, but there is a gratitude, appreciation, and excitement to see our resilience and adaptability to make this school year work with whatever challenge we face. There are mixed emotions, but we will rise above this looking back on these times with respect towards the strength and courage of our little ones. "

Dr. Lucido also encourages parents to make space for acceptance. First, by accepting our thoughts and observing them only as thoughts. Next, by allowing ourselves some self-compassion. For example, he says, it is perfectly normal to worry about your children. It's through the acceptance of our thoughts and ourselves that we can come to accept and even make peace with our current reality.

"The most important thing is that we have this acceptance that this is our world currently, and each family has to make their own personal decision and what is best for them without judgment towards themselves or others.  Let's focus on just trying to do our best, while also allowing our young people their opportunity to grow from their potential."

If you or a loved one are suffering from depression or hopelessness, sadness, anxiety, substance use disorder, or any other emotions that just don’t feel quite right, help is available. You can also Click here for our Mental Health Flowchart, a helpful resource to get support, no matter what mental health state you're in. 

Help Us Spread the Word

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free, confidential, 24/7/365 emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. Call or text 988 and speak to a counselor today.