Written by Moe Gelbart, PhD - Director, Behavioral Health
The beginning of each new school year is typically filled with excitement,
nervousness, and lots of unknowns for both kids and parents. After a full
year of virtual learning, social distancing, and absence from campus,
this year’s return to school is more daunting than ever before.
Add to this the uncertainty of COVID-19, the spread of the Delta variant
and the conflict over vaccines and masks, makes this no ordinary September
return to school. Here are some suggestions for helping yourself and your
child navigate these unusual and difficult times.
Have patience. Just because students are back in the classroom; all is not back to normal.
The reality is not all kids are happy to be back and even those looking
forward to it can, at the same time, experience anxiety. Help your child
be ok with having conflicting feelings, understanding their feelings will
often be changing day to day. Help them adopt a “one day at a time”
attitude and to be more flexible than they may have been in the past.
Make sure your own expectations are not too demanding and things may not
be the same as they were for quite some time. We all want to get back
to the way things were, but this will occur on its own timetable, and
we must be certain not to rush things artificially.
Focus more on effort, and less on outcomes. Help your child from judging their successes only by the results and
teach them to emphasize the process. Remember the proverb that the journey
is what is important, not the destination. When your child focuses on
process, they will feel more in control of things, more empowered, and
ultimately more self-assured and confident.
Keep things in perspective. Most experts are certain this school year will not be totally without
bumps and understanding this is essential. Help your child avoid catastrophizing
and imagining future disasters. Teach them to live in the world of “what
is” rather than “what if. When they are overly anxious about
test results, friends, sports teams, etc., let them know the situation
is fluid, will change, and will soon be different. While they may think
“this is the worst thing that ever happened,” or “it’s
never going to be ok again,” help them recognize their situation
Monitor Social Media. New research is confirming what we already know -- there are dangers
to the mental health of teens from Instagram, TikTok , Snapchat, Facebook
and other social media outlets. Children are spending too much time on
these platforms, comparing themselves to unrealistic posts and coming
away feeling less-than, inadequate, unattractive and ultimately depressed
-- and at times even suicidal. For many, their time is consumed online
or on their cell phones. Although it may not be easy, as parents we need
to communicate with them, help them set healthy limits and boundaries
around screen time and put stronger guardrails in place when it appears
there is a problem. A recent
Wall Street Journal article suggests parents discuss the tactics social media companies use
to get teens hooked and assist them to think more critically about how
they are being manipulated. Parents should also monitor and check in daily
with what is going on in their teen’s online world. The younger
the child, the easier it is to control the situation. It is recommended
children not have their own cell device until age 12 or 13.
Model healthy behaviors. Your children will pay more attention to what you do than to what you
say. Let them see you acknowledge your own feelings and work through emotional
difficulties. This will assist them in self-acceptance and help them to
open up to you about issues they may be experiencing. Demonstrate a healthy
lifestyle by example, i.e., eating healthy, exercising regularly, practicing
good sleep habits and sleep hygiene. Avoid the use of alcohol or substance
as an escape or coping mechanism.
Incorporate Mindfulness. Mindfulness is a skill which allows us to be fully-present, aware of
our surroundings, and not be overly reactive or overwhelmed by what is
going on around us. This technique can be easily practiced and helps regulate
emotions and stress. The two key components of mindfulness are awareness
and acceptance. The benefits are significant and include reduction in
stress, anxiety, pain, depression, insomnia and high blood pressure. Mindfulness
also improves attention, decreases chances for substance abuse and helps
regulate emotions. One of the benefits of our current technology is mindfulness
can be easily practiced with using one of the many available apps, like
Calm or Headspace. Eight to 10 minutes per day will have significant positive impact for
Develop Rituals. Structure is an important component of dealing with today’s uncertainties.
Spending time together as a family with regular and planned events provide
a kind of anchor of stability for children during turbulent times. Eating
meals together as a family at least three to four times a week, will also
yield significant benefits. As reported in the
Harvard EdCast, family dinners are “associated with lower rates of depression,
anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders, tobacco use, early teenage
pregnancy, as well as higher rates of resilience and self -esteem.”
It is helpful if these times together are free of cell phones. Other activities
include watching a certain TV show each week, visiting grandparents on
a certain day or reading time.
Avoid asking too many questions. A common refrain I hear from parents is when they ask their children regularly
“how are you?” or “how is school?” the general
response is “fine.” Perhaps a better way of communicating
to your child, rather than asking questions, is to communicate your own
feelings, i.e., express why you are asking the question. Instead of “how
is school?”, one might say “I see you coming home and looking
sad, and I am concerned about what is happening at school.” Many
times, this leads to a much more meaningful conversation.
This will be a challenging school year. In the first weeks, we saw COVID-19
outbreaks in every school district in the community resulting in quarantine
and return to distance learning for some. The future is unknown, but as
parents, we can be better prepared. As I often say, “you can’t
stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf.”