Navigating Back-to-School Amid COVID-19: Mental Health Tips for Parents

Aug 20, 2020

By Renee Schneider, PhD

Earlier this summer, I was convinced my 9-year-old daughter absolutely had to return to school in person for her social and emotional well-being. Now, the idea scares me, and she’s admitted that it feels risky to her, too. Every parent I know, and likely every parent, period, is in the midst of this exact struggle—and with children also showing soaring levels of anxiety, it can be challenging to know how to make decisions that optimize for mental health.

This pandemic is an unprecedented event that’s difficult for everyone, especially since it’s layered on top of other stressors, from financial uncertainty to lack of personal space, increasing work demands for many, and the typical wrangles of parenting without the usual level of support that many of us enjoy. 

Honestly, there’s no perfect solution here, and we are all just doing the best we can. To that end, here are some strategies parents can try that I’ve started implementing in my own life, especially as the debate over back-to-school safety intensifies. Here are eight to consider.

1. Continue seeking reliable information 

Acknowledge the amount of conflicting information you may be receiving and its impact on the family. We hear experts sharing a variety of perspectives on what is best for our children, from 100 percent in-person schooling to a hybrid model to online-only or “distance” learning

The reality is that each option comes with its own risks. As always, we parents must face the fact that there is no way to shield our children from all potential harm. All we can do is consider the risks and benefits associated with each option, giving more weight to expert opinions from trusted sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and make the best decision we can in the moment. 

2. Make space for your child to share their feelings

My daughter cries more than she used to, missing school and her friends so much. I arrange video playdates for her, but she’s told me, “It’s not the same.” Now more than ever, it’s important to provide space for your child to share their emotions, whether it’s sadness, fear, or unbridled joy because they won’t have to go back to school in person this fall. 

Remember to validate whatever they are feeling. For example, you might say, “Of course you feel mad that you can’t go to school. I feel angry about it, too.” As parents, we tend to want to “fix” or sometimes even minimize the situation when our kids are feeling sad or angry, but that can send the message that those emotions aren’t allowed. Let kids feel what they’re feeling—and let them see that you share many of those feelings, too.

3. Boost your kids’ sense of safety

Kids are incredibly perceptive, and they pick up on our worries and emotions. Children look to their parents and other adults for their sense of safety, so if we convey that they’re safe, they’ll likely feel safe. When you speak with your child about the coronavirus and the extra precautions schools are taking, try to be as calm and reassuring as possible. 

You can acknowledge children’s fears but also remind them of the facts. In general, children do not seem to be at risk of the more severe COVID-19 symptoms that threaten adults. If your child is concerned about the risk of something happening to you, remind them that even among adults, most people who contract COVID-19 have only mild symptoms. Help them to feel safe.

4. Be honest 

In talking with middle schoolers or high schoolers about heading back to school during the pandemic, you can be more open and acknowledge their concerns that it’s true, you can’t guarantee everyone will be ok. None of us can predict the future and we can’t say for sure that we’ll be around tomorrow. That was true even before the pandemic. 

However, the chances are excellent that unless you have a pre-existing health condition, you and your child will weather this pandemic. If you or your child do have a pre-existing health condition, help them focus on the important precautions you’re taking to keep everyone healthy. Again, though, don’t dismiss your child’s fears, which are reasonable. Validate that of course, your child is scared. We all are, but we’re going to do everything we can to stay safe.

And just as with younger kids, modeling open communication can help teens open up about their thoughts, feelings, and reactions during this time. For example, you might say, “Sometimes when I hear scary news, I feel anxious, but talking about it with my family and friends helps me feel better. I hope you can share what you’re feeling with me, too, so we can all help each other through this.”

5. Accept that you’ll feel some guilt, but also push back on it

I often joke with my friends that guilt feels like an integral part of parenting. No matter what you decide, guilt may be part of the outcome, but keep in mind that this doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong

Unless you’ve intentionally done something to hurt your child, acknowledge that while you may feel guilt, this emotion isn’t warranted by facts. Notice the feeling but try not to attach to it. You might even observe what guilt feels like for you and where in your body you notice the sensation of guilt. Practice describing what you’re feeling without labeling it as “good” or “bad.” If you notice that the guilt is accompanied by thoughts, try to simply observe them and remember that just because you have a thought, that doesn’t make it true.

6. Emphasize self-care

Self-care is not an indulgence–it’s a foundation for your emotional health. All of the usual advice applies here: Eat healthy foods, get enough sleep, exercise regularly, and you’ll be less vulnerable to sudden emotional fluctuations. Practice self-validation, and remind yourself that you weighed the pros and cons carefully before reaching a decision about school and that you’re doing as well as humanly possible amidst a global pandemic. You’ve made and will continue to make the best decisions you can for your child. While this doesn’t mean everything will work out the way you want, it does mean you can let yourself off the hook. 

Everyone is feeling stressed and overwhelmed right now. You can manage these feelings with deep breathing, relaxation, and mindfulness exercises, but also by taking some of the work off of your plate. The world won’t end because you have baskets of unfolded laundry—trust me, I’ve tested this hypothesis, and even with three baskets of laundry waiting, the planet continues to spin.

7. Prioritize ruthlessly

As back-to-school makes already-busy days even more hectic, consider what absolutely must get done and what can you live without. The kids need to be fed and that work assignment may need to be completed by end of day, but the dishes in the sink? You can probably wait until the next morning to tackle these. 

Self-compassion is non-negotiable as you envision everything that needs to get done. Remind yourself often that you are a human being tasked with a superhuman job, and you’re doing the best you can. Carve out time to take care of yourself, too, whether that means getting some exercise or catching up on your Netflix queue.

8. Build your support team 

Knowing that no decision you make will be risk-free, how can you cope with the anxiety, the constant gnawing in the pit of your stomach, the worries, and the guilt that many parents are feeling this back-to-school season? The same way we parents always cope with these feelings: Seek out support. Talk with other parents. You’ll quickly find you’re not alone. Everyone is in the same boat, and no one has all the answers. 

If you find yourself ruminating about your child or COVID-19, if you notice that your anxiety or fears are interfering with your ability to take care of yourself or your family, or you’re finding it hard to work or engage with others, it may be time to get additional support. Even if your functioning isn’t impacted, but you’re finding the worries hard to control, consider connecting with a mental health professional.

For employed parents, a good starting point is your company’s employee assistance program (EAP) or your health care plan. If your employer offers Lyra as a benefit, you can get started today. Many therapists now offer virtual sessions, which research shows can be just as effective as in-person care. 

Above all, be kind to yourself. I know, from deep personal experience, that it can all feel overwhelming right now—not just the back-to-school issues, but all of it. Take some deep breaths, prioritize self-care, get support even before you need it, and remember: This is new for everyone, and we’re all doing the best we can. 

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DISCLAIMER:

The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Renee Schneider, PhD is the VP of Clinical Quality at Lyra Health and a licensed clinical psychologist. She has extensive experience and skill in the areas of crisis management, psychological assessment, clinical supervision and intervention, and empirical research. Dr. Schneider also specializes in supporting children and families.