Navigating back-to-school season can be rough – especially this year. Learn quick tips on how to care for yourself (and why it's so important!) while helping your kids cope as they adjust to going back into the classroom this fall during these challenging, uncertain times.
Over the summer, many parents and caregivers (myself included) were eagerly looking forward to sending their kids back to the classroom in-person this fall.
Then the Delta variant emerged, and our anxiety understandably started to escalate. The recent surge in pediatric cases has left many of us are now tackling a tough conundrum, weighing physical safety and social and emotional mental health risks. It’s no wonder we feel overwhelmed, worried and downright exhausted.
So how can we carry on and move forward even as it feels as if in some ways we’re heading backwards?
Tip 1: Put your own mask on first.
The best way to help your kids cope during these challenging times is to understand how you’re feeling first. Kids pick up on how you’re feeling, thinking and acting more than you may realize. Being honest with yourself by tuning inward is key to setting the stage so you can then help your children understand and process their feelings.
While it may be tempting to try to move forward and forget about how hard the pandemic has been, if you don’t process your feelings, they’ll still be there tomorrow. And the day after that. It’s better to take conscious consideration of your emotions and address with them today rather than have them unconsciously influence your path forward.
Try to find five minutes in your day to check in with yourself, either before everyone wakes up or right after you tuck the kids in. Turn off your devices, put away distractions and get quiet. Ask yourself how you’re feeling today.
You can also check out my IGTV conversation with Lynn Turcotte-Schuh, parenting coach of Happy Mama Wellness, on why it's important to put your mask on first.
If your mind begins to race or you start to feel overwhelmed, slow down and focus on your breath for a moment or two.
You can even try some box breathing, where you breathe in slowly for four counts, hold for four counts, slowly exhale through your mouth for four counts and then hold for four more counts before beginning the process again.
If you find yourself consumed with worry, try jotting them down. No worry is too big or too small, and the simple act of writing them down (or even creating voice memos of them) makes them more concrete and thus more manageable.
The goal with this exercise (which we walk you through in Comeback Kids) is to find actionable ways you can move forward and opportunities to let go of or put aside worries over which you have no control.
Tip 2: Connect with your kid(s).
Once you’ve walked through this process to assess and manage your worries (we recommend you do this at least several times to begin), you’ll be in a better position to assess how your kid is doing and what steps you can take to help them. Because when you get down to it, while we do our best to connect and communicate with our kids, sometimes it’s really tough to gauge what’s really going on.
The best way to start is to have open, honest conversations with your child.
It starts with listening. Pay attention when your kid starts talking by stopping what you’re doing (whenever possible), get down on their level and make direct eye contact. This lets them know you care and that they can trust that you’ll be available to them when they need you.
Try the D.E.A.L. approach: no matter what time of day (or night!) it is, do your best to “Drop Everything And Listen.” You can either remind yourself of it in your head or tell your kid about it and let them know whenever they want to talk about something important they can say “DEAL” and you’ll be there to listen carefully without distractions.
Pay attention to your child's behavior.
Think back to what changes you’ve noticed in them since the pandemic started. If you notice significant changes in their sleep/wake cycles, their appetite, energy levels and/or interest in life for more over two weeks, it may be time to reach out to your pediatrician or a mental health professional for additional help.
Let them set the pace of the conversation.
Little kids typically have shorter attention spans and absorb information primarily in small doses, so it can be helpful to break up difficult conversations into smaller bite-sized pieces that you present one at a time. This gives them the opportunity to process each part separately. Children ages 4-8 in particular may interrupt the conversation to go back to play and then come back to work through their thoughts later on. Making it clear you’re ready to talk when they’re ready gives them an added sense of confidence.
Offer them reassurance and support.
Whether it’s a hug, kiss or cuddle afterwards, words of encouragement by telling them how proud you are of them or how brave they are for sharing their feelings, or an extra “I love you” before bed, gestures like this offer them safety and security.
Tip 3: Collaborate with them on how your family can build a more positive future.
Life rarely gives us the opportunity to stop and reflect on how we’ve operated in the past and consider how we might want to live going forward. If ever there was a moment for that, this is it. See if you can carve out a little time to collaborate with your kids (and your spouse or partner, if applicable) to decide what you’d like the future to look like.
You may want to think through some of these questions with your loved ones: Was there anything during the pandemic that brought you and your family closer together? Did you feel closer or further away from your community? Did you find time to do things you hadn’t made room for before? Or did you cut out things you don’t really miss now that they’re gone?
Be mindful of what matters most.
Internalize the most positive new behaviors you’ve learned during the pandemic and try to let go of the stuff that’s zapping your energy.
Create a flexible schedule that works for everyone.
Begin by establishing healthy sleep routines and family mealtimes and then try to include opportunities for all of you to be together.
Focus on kindness.
Kids (and adults!) of all ages understand what it means to be kind. Talk to your family about the helpers they noticed during the pandemic. Then come up with some concrete ways you can act with kindness toward others, whether it’s helping out at a local community event, delivering groceries or cards to neighbors or serving at a soup kitchen.
If you or your kids think things you wish you could do but feel like you can’t because of the uncertainties with the Delta variant, create a “wish” jar. Every time someone thinks of something they would enjoy, they can write it down on a piece of paper. Then, when things settle down, you can each take turns picking out one of the activities and doing them as a family. Or draw a gratitude tree with your kids and help them think through and fill out what they’re most grateful for.
These are challenging times, and parenting is hard even without a pandemic. If you’re anxious, know you’re definitely not alone. It’s okay to not be okay. Asking for help is a sign of strength.
Help can look like asking a friend or family member to watch your kids so you can take some time to relax, going for a walk with the dog (by yourself or with your kids) or reaching out to your kid’s pediatrician with questions.
You’ve already done so much for your kids just by caring enough to notice when something feels off. Trust your gut – you know your kids best. You’ve got this. And if you’re ever in doubt, reach out – that’s what we’re here for: to support your family through these challenging times and beyond.