rē•spin Your Back to School Plan
Prioritize mental and physical health for the entire family.
“Back to school” has always been a period of adjustment for families and children, bringing with it feelings of relief, but also a bittersweet sadness. The pandemic, however, has thwarted any preconceived senses of normalcy this BTS season, sending families into a tug-of-war between their hard-earned equilibrium in the “new normal,” their former lifestyles, and how to feel safe and balanced in the new circumstances.
This year, going back to school will look and feel much different. For parents, this means navigating the rules associated with each school and district. With all of the changes this year, it’s important to be proactive in guiding your children — and your entire family — through this challenging rē•entry to in-person schooling so as to promote and maintain well-being for all.
What Challenges Will Families Face?
Michelle Charriere, founder and CEO of Babies and Brains, understands the back-to-school struggles that families will be facing over the course of the next few weeks. Emotions will be high, which Charriere explains is to be expected after the tumultuous year and a half we’ve faced globally. “This last year was particularly brutal for parents,” she tells rē•spin. “All of a sudden, parents became teachers, while also trying to keep up with their jobs, and provide for the basic needs of their families — which inevitably pushed the needs and self-care of parents to the end of the priority list.”
Even with schools widely rē•opening and rē•turning to “business as usual” (or as close to it as possible), this balancing act that parents have been facing will not magically disappear overnight. As parents whose children’s schools have been back in session already know, they are provided with daily notices of exposure and infection rates from the schools with the potential for shutdown always looming. This is a challenge to the sense of safety and security, which Charriere notes are both fundamental necessities that are non-negotiable in order to thrive.
This is truly a delicate balance that parents are being forced to face. By sending your kids to school, you can trigger safety concerns for their overall well-being and health. But if you keep them home, your job and livelihood may be affected as the nation remains in the liminal phase between rē•turning to normal and shutting down. It would only be natural to feel stuck between a rock and a hard place — stress running high, but the show must go on.
Acknowledging Mental Health In Children
It is also important to note that when parents are experiencing high-stress, this absolutely impacts their children — not just in that it can impact the way you interact with your child, but that children are insightful and intuitive; they can sense their parents’ feelings, feel unsettled themselves, and even become concerned about the well-being of their parents. After such a stressful year and a half, normal notions of self-care and wellness fell to the wayside as parents were thrust into positions that forced them to focus on getting by.
Do not underestimate the residual and long-lasting impact of prolonged stress, suppressed emotions, and even somatic trauma that may have built up due to loss, alienation, missing out on milestone moments with family and friends, and more. The cumulative impact of bearing this emotional burden (consciously or not) can even result in unhealthy behaviors that will be picked up on, or even modeled, for children. Not to mention, kids have their own feelings about the pandemic that they might need help sorting through.
The bottom line is that your child’s experience is largely impacted by yours, and it’s worth checking-in to see if they, too, need help coping. Talking candidly with your child can be easier said than done, especially taking differing ages and developmental stages into consideration. This naturally results in some hesitancy from parents. Charriere says, “Sometimes I think the fear is [that] if we talk about reality, it may scare our children, and so we avoid talking about difficult things.” But she is adamant that it is better to help them process their feelings and address their fears openly rather than relying on their innate capacity to do so, which is simply not an age-appropriate burden for a child to have to bear (not to mention, it can pave the way for fear-induced, cognitive distortions to become their baseline).
Tips for Talking to Your Children About The Pandemic
Charriere suggests a few exercises to practice with your children to help reduce their fears and uncertainties regarding the pandemic as the back-to-school season arrives.
- Acknowledge your own fears. If you’re holding onto anxieties about your children going back to school, face them and breathe through them. Otherwise, your child will sense or even adopt your suppressed fears and apprehensions. This is not to say that your concerns are not valid; Charriere acknowledges their validity but encourages you to reflect on your own feelings before addressing your child’s. Try to approach them like a “clear channel.”
- Visit the classroom ahead of time, if permitted. If you can’t access school grounds, ask if you can receive a photo of the classroom. Charriere admits it may seem like an odd request, but visuals are helpful when preparing a child for their first day. It will allow you to explain what day one may look like for them. Point out where they’ll sit, where they’ll put their belongings, where they’ll be with classmates. This creates a sense of familiarity with the space and cuts out those first-day surprises that can generate anxiety.
- Acknowledge the feelings your child is having. “Talking about these feelings does not create the feelings, it sends the message that these feelings are safe [to share and experience] and that you understand what your children are going through,” Charriere says. She suggests saying, “I know it can be scary to start school after not going for a while. It’s okay to be scared. Your teacher and I are here to help you.”
- Roleplay beforehand. Before school starts, or even throughout the school year, roleplaying can help create familiarity and ease in children, thus helping reduce fear and anxiety associated with the unknown. Practice putting a mask on with your child, especially if they find it difficult to keep it on for long periods of time. You can also practice separations and reunions to prepare them for what it will be like to drop them off and pick them back up from school.
How Parents Can Care for Themselves
Protecting and maintaining your child’s mental health is incredibly important, but don’t forget to take care of yourself. Despite society’s positioning of parents as “super-humans,” Charriere says this is less of a compliment and more of an unhealthy expectation. It is only human to crumble under pressure when not properly supported, which is why tending to your wellness is imperative. “Society’s idea of a good parent is an exhausted one that has pushed their needs to the side and has poured everything into their children,” she explains. “What really makes a good parent [is one] that recognizes that their needs are important, and understands that whether their own needs are met or not directly affects their children.”
When you carve out time for yourself and indulge in “treat yourself” moments, whatever that may look like for you, you can begin to make self-care a habit. As Charriere puts it, “If your cup is empty, you have nothing to pour into your children; prioritizing your own needs and health will directly, positively impact your children.” Your self-care practice can be unique to you and doesn’t have to be confined to a single spa trip or one weekend away a year. Allow yourself to practice moments of pause and connect with yourself, regularly making time for your preferred wellness practices. If you can show up for yourself, you can show up for your family with a better balance at the end of the day; plus, it models healthy self-worth and self-care for your children to learn from.
The pandemic has driven home the reality that life is filled with uncertainty and stressors. While we cannot control much of what happens in our lives, we can prepare for what’s to come. It’s important to maintain a healthy parent-child relationship regardless, and these challenging times have brought this fact to the forefront. If your child is struggling, look inward — Ask yourself if you feeling stressed, whether you have been taking care of yourself and if you have been able to find moments to spend quality time with your children.
The best way to get through the normal feelings associated with BTS season in a pandemic is to practice excellent self-care for yourself, and making an effort to do so with your child, as well.