Tips for parents coping with back-to-school anxiety

Clinical psychologist Dr. Jen Hartstein offer tips for parents who are dealing with fears surrounding back to school during the pandemic. Dealing with so much uncertainty is difficult for many parents to strategize for changes that could come with the school year. Hartstein says that making a plan, and finding your support systems in your family and community now will ease some of the worry. She also says that it's important to ask work for flexibility ahead of time, as changes could come that make it hard for you to complete work. While you deal with your own emotions, Hartstein says it's important to be gentle with your children's emotions as well, and make sure to validate their feelings. Then you can move on to practicing problem-solving with your kids so that they're ready for whatever comes at them when at school. Finally, Hartstein says that the most important thing is to be ready for change. Flexibility isn't the easiest thing for many of us, especially when we're dealing with so much anxiety, so make sure to give yourself a break and surrender to the unknown as best as you can. “Take care of yourself, which allows you to take care of other people more effectively.”

Video Transcript

JEN HARTSTEIN: So parents are wrestling with a lot of emotions as we head into the back to school time. And we're preparing, because there is so much unknown. So it's triggering a lot of frustration, anxiety, worry, anger, sadness for our kids for not getting the typical school experience. It's changing all the time. We just don't know where it's going to land.


The best way to deal with feeling overwhelmed is to come up with as good a plan as possible. What's going to happen if kids are only in school two days a week? Who can you lean on? How can you get help? Can you bunch kids together?

Maybe there's ways to socially distance a small group class in your own house that you can work with together, so that one parent monitors on a Monday, one parent monitors on a Wednesday. So work can still be done. Don't be afraid to ask questions, to get involved in the school, to be part of the meetings. The more prepared you can be, the better you are for anything that comes at you.

Don't be afraid to talk to your employer about having some flexibility at work. We're going to need that now more than ever, and we can't be afraid to ask for that, if that's something we really need. Everyone has an opinion on what we're supposed to be doing. You don't have to agree with what your neighbor does. But if you really believe that your child needs to have a mask on everyday they're in school or they're around other people, and they're not going to share their toys, and they're not going to touch other things, that is for you to decide.

You have to filter out all the excessive noise, because there are so much of it, and just sit in your own values, stand by what you believe in, use the supports within your family, and keep moving forward. Many parents are going to be dealing with the emotions and anxieties of their children as they go back to school, because this is not the school they know. And especially for little ones, having to be in class with a mask, or not being able to hug their friends, or having to maintain social distancing is going to be a challenge.

So the first thing we want to do is validate those feelings. It's important to let your child know that what they're feeling makes sense. Don't ask them to snap out of it. Don't tell them to get over it. They're allowed to feel what they're feeling.

And then, move to problem-solving with them. OK, so what are you going to do if your friend takes off their mask? What are you going to do when you want to hug your friend? How can you stop yourself?

So we have to work on being flexible and trying to go with the flow. We don't know where we're going with this. We have no idea what the next steps are. We know that we're in a surge. We know that that could settle down. There could be a second wave.

So while we're in school, hopefully to begin with, it could end up that we're all back on online learning and working from home. Be patient. Recognize that everyone is doing the best they can. The world is an anxious and overwhelmed place right now. The energy around us is really fraught with so much intensity.

So don't be surprised if you're feeling it more than you might normally. And if you just need to take a time out, take a time out. That's OK. Just get back into it. You can't avoid it forever. So take care of yourself, which allows you to take care of other people more effectively.