Returning to School in 2021 | Torrance Memorial

Published on September 23, 2021

Returning to School in 2021: A Parent's Survival Guide

high school student wearing mask

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 will improve.

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 your children.

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.”