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Taking Charge of Back-to-School Stress 2021

Parents, compassionately, take care of your own anxiety first.

Key points

  • Anxiety is an expected reaction at first, but instead of protecting us, it makes us feel more vulnerable.
  • Even if parents feel fearful about some things, they need to fact-check their own fear first so they can be reassuring to their children.
  • Kids will follow their parents' lead and can learn from their parents how to take anxiety and uncertainty and focus on what they can control.

As families across the country prepare for a new school year start, along with the usual back-to-school worries, the delta variant has shaken our confidence and the hopes we held high just a few short weeks ago for a more “normal” year. There is no question—we are yet again facing another year like no other.

Instead of worrying about which binder to choose, it’s worries about COVID, vaccines, masks, mask wars, and the 3 a.m. pit in your stomach wondering whether by sending your child to school you are doing the right thing for their safety and well-being.

Your worries are totally understandable. And your child’s worries—some kids flat out refusing to go back to school this year—are understandable too.

And as understandable as worry is, we can tell by our racing hearts that it’s simply not the state where we get our best work done, or any work done, at all.

If your kids are scared, how can you reassure them if your fears aren’t so different from theirs?

Take care of your own fears first, and then your child—reading your expression more than your words—will know that it’s OK to feel fear at first. Then there are steps to take them from anxiety to action—or even just to relative calmness. Here they are:

Step 1: Bring Empathy to the Moment

You have been parenting in the trenches, starting and stopping, worrying and navigating, in the most extraordinary and unprecedented times. It’s exhausting and open-ended. Have compassion for yourself, appreciating how well you’ve faced these trials.

With kids, be generous with your empathy and understanding. Your own anxiety may spike when your child says they’re “not going to school!”, and if you respond with a hardline “Oh yes you are!”, they will keep telling you louder and louder how they’re feeling until you acknowledge what they’re saying. Instead, be a good listener, help your child feel heard—then ask if you can help them think through their fears. Make certain to address their fears rather than risk introducing worry content that wasn’t already on their mind. Reinforce that you are on their side and there to help and that you’re going to work it through together.

Step 2: Relabel Your Fears Accurately—It’s Your Worry Brain

When you hear “what if’s” and “oh nos!” in your mind, or out loud, don’t just give them authority, understand that they are understandable but not helpful responses to uncertainty and risk.

With kids: help kids learn the “sounds” of worry—does that sound like worry to you? Remember, worry is an alarm, but we have to turn it off so we can think clearly about what we need to do—and whether we actually need to do anything right now.

Step 3: Rethink and Fact-Check Your Fears

Write down your fears or say them out loud, then edit them for accuracy. If something is really a feeling not a fact like, “I’m a bad parent if I send (or don’t send) my child to school,” then edit in the feeling words: I feel like a bad parent, I feel like I’ll make a mistake, I’m having a lot of worry thoughts about doing the wrong thing and putting my child in danger.” Using these edits helps to downgrade the authority of the worries and hear them as emotions. After you do your edits, ask yourself what is likely to happen rather than what you’re afraid will happen.

With kids: Ask them “What are the things on your worry list?” “What is worry telling you?” or “What are the worries on your mind?” Have them use a red pen to edit and correct the fears. For example, if they see, “If I go to school I’m going to get sick,” they can correct that—“I’m having the worry thought that if I go to school, I’ll get sick, but I know that I am doing what I need to do to protect myself and school is doing what they need too to protect me.”

Step 4: Connect With Your Body, Calmly

Is it a few deep breaths, is it dropping everything and walking the dog? Reaching for the sky and letting your arms drop a couple times? Giving yourself a bear hug if no one is around to help you with that? Worry makes your body buzz with adrenaline—it can make you feel like something is really happening (and wrong) even when it’s just something that you’re picturing in your mind. A good exhale grounds you back to the present where nothing is happening, and it helps you slow down so you can get perspective and be ready to make good choices.

With kids: help your child find their “go to” physical re-set—a big exhale blowing out birthday candles, a bear hug, a “robot-ragdoll” game where they make their body stiff then relaxed, or even some jumping jacks or dancing to “wring” out the adrenaline.

Step 5: Mobilize and Take Action Wherever You Can

Even if there is a reason to be scared, even in the face of real potential threats, we can be prepared—and feel that way. What part of the situation in front of you can you control? Write down what you could do if you were taking care of things—what would it look like? Whether that’s educating yourself to fill in the blanks about the most effective masks for your child, or talking to the guidance counselor, taking action counters feeling of helplessness.

With kids: Thank them for sharing their worries with you, then ask them:

  • What part of the feared situation can they control, what parts can they not?
  • What part feels hardest to them vs. what parts are easier?
  • How do they think the situation will actually turn out vs. what their fears are telling them about the situation?
  • Are there things that they or someone else can do that would help?
  • How can they role-play asking for help when they don't feel comfortable?

We all need to support each other for the common good coming together whenever possible to take actions to mitigate the risks and protect our children. Sending good wishes for a safe year for all.

©2021 Tamar Chansky, Ph.D.

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