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Managing Back-to-School Anxiety

Strategies for both parents and their children of all ages.

Many parents have been dreading the upcoming school year all summer, and regardless of what stage you're at in your parenting journey, it may feel like a big looming cloud of uncertainty is hanging over our heads. As many of us are in the midst of the transition back to school, it’s time to really sit with and acknowledge our feelings in order to consciously choose how to model the behavior we want for our kids and teens.

No matter what, this fall will not look like anything we’ve ever seen. While it’s stating the obvious, it’s not “normal” back to school and the various nuances of this reality will have a significant impact on all of us and our children. We will have to make an effort to accept that there are no great choices, and adjust accordingly to whatever choices we will have available.

But, how do we do this?

Start by sitting with your emotions. Acknowledge all of the feelings that arise. You may notice that you feel anxious, fearful, or have feelings of frustration, and that there are ways that these feelings are also showing up in your body. Be still with what makes you uncomfortable and become aware of the thoughts about your current situation that are creating your feelings. When you start to notice and accept all of your feelings, you can begin to become more proactive rather than reactive in managing them.

One of the ongoing themes that I focus on with my clients is how to learn how to manage our minds, by accepting what we have control over and what we don’t.

Worrying is the mind's way of trying to protect us from a perceived danger, and it mistakenly believes that worrying is useful. Pervasive worry leads to a spiral of anxiety that at best is a waste of time, and can lead to additional suffering if we do not learn how to focus on controlling the controllables.

Not everything that you encounter can be changed. For many of us, this global pandemic is an opportunity to accept that much of our lives is not in our control, and resisting this reality creates additional stress and anxiety. Focusing on all of the uncertainty can be overwhelming and can make you feel like you have no control. Think about how you might feel if you're in a spinning room. Reaching out to grab hold of something to stop the movement is your first step. This also goes for your anxious feelings. Look inward, and try to name and understand what you are feeling. Notice what thoughts have created these feelings based on the situation at hand. Just this simple act of naming and noticing our feelings already helps to calm our nervous system a bit.

After you’ve acknowledged your emotions, start thinking about what you actually can control. For instance, you may not know what your child’s school environment will look like, but you probably know that there is the possibility of some distance learning. Start thinking about the work schedule(s) in your family and how you can adjust the times to include shared instruction or support for your children. Perhaps you know that your child will use certain devices to accommodate online learning. Look into purchasing, or obtain access to any necessary devices or equipment, or start emailing your school administration to find out what technology is available from the school. We all know that kids going to school will likely need a mask. Use these last few days to find comfortable, breathable, or fun designed masks that fit properly and that they find comfortable. Taking the first step by controlling what you can will help ease your anxious feelings. For teens, approaching the upcoming school year in a collaborative way that includes their thoughts and feelings will likely yield less power struggles and more buy-in to the shared goal of creating habits and life skills that are the foundation for creating both personal and academic success.

Another way to maintain a warm and supportive connection with your child or teen is to approach conversations about the school year in a calm and open way. Check in on them. Ask open-ended questions periodically to see how they’re feeling. What feelings are they noticing? Remind them that you are a resource for them, available to discuss anything that they may feel concerned about or feel overwhelmed by. You can guide them to become aware of and to acknowledge their own feelings, and help them learn how to control their controllables. For instance, if they’re feeling nervous about the virus, talk with them about what measures they can take to avoid it, what they think might get in the way of them doing the things that they know will protect them, and by reminding them to limit their news intake as needed. Beginning to gradually shift routines and habits that have likely been more flexible during the summer will help. Planning a work area that includes the essential ingredients that your child or teen needs for focus and support will also be especially important this year for distance learning success.

It’s also OK to share some of your feelings. It might be helpful for them to know they are not alone. Kids and teens tend to feel more secure when they know what to expect. Try to discuss these differences when you’re emotionally available to answer their questions calmly and thoughtfully. Ideally, these conversations should not take place before bed when kids and teens might tend to ruminate and become more anxious.

Parents are the best teachers for modeling behavior. This pandemic has been really challenging so far, and it will likely continue to challenge us in new and unforeseen ways. As everything else does, this too shall pass. For now, practice managing your mind and help your children to do the same.

If you notice your child is struggling more than normal, consider connecting with a therapist or life coach. A coach can help your child develop the skills that enable them to be more emotionally flexible and the tools that they need to navigate the challenges that they are facing both during the pandemic and beyond. Do you know a teen or a college-aged girl who could use some guidance in this connective process? Visit my website for more information and let’s connect.