Back to School Stress – COVID Edition

Typical beginning of school year stressors are common. Kids start to worry about non life threatening ideas such as, will I be wearing the same clothes as everyone else, who will be in my class, and what kind of work will I get this year. 

Many if not most children feel this way at the beginning of the year. Parents worry about making sure their child has everything they need off the every growing back to school supplies list. Arranging for after school and/or before school care. Figuring out what to eat for dinner and how much time there will be in between being home and heading back out for a myriad of activities like sports practice, music lessons, or play dates. 

It’s a stressful time in general. Getting back into a routine of getting up early, and having more to do at night. 

Let’s add a pandemic on top of it. 

Now, instead of adjusting to going back to school after two and half solid months, children and adults are adjusting to going back to school after 5, nearly 6 months! This in itself is bound to bring up some more discomfort. But then we have to consider the fact that school no longer looks the same. 

As a clinician who works primarily with children and teenagers, I have heard nearly a dozen different back to school plans amongst my clients. These range from children rotating every two days in school, to everyone having a virtual learning day, to school practically resuming as normal. The following are just a few new “rules” of going back to school among the schools I have clients in. Masks are mandated to enter the building, but not once sitting in seats. Temperatures must be taken before entering the building. Teachers are now rotating to classrooms instead of students. Classes are being divided in half based on last name so that kids are with the same group more often. 

As we already discussed, the pressures of school are already difficult. It’s an adjustment. Social anxiety and the anticipation of doing well in school are already common. But the current situation is something that nobody has any baseline for. Nothing is universal, and there’s the impending thought that school could once again shut down. 

So what do we do? How do we alleviate the stress? Not just for children, but for all the adults as well. What do we do for the teachers who are restricted to giving their new kindergarteners a hug when they’re crying because the first day of school is already scary? Parents who now have to figure out how to work and accommodate a child’s rotating school schedule so that they aren’t home alone. 

5 Ways to Manage Back to School Stress during a Pandemic

  1. Focus on the Moment: There are a million things that could change at any given minute, day, or week. Trying to prepare for them all will increase your stress levels, and you’ll feel more agitated and worried. Then, in all likeness, if one of those situations that you’ve carefully planned for does come up, you’ll readjust anyway. When your mind start to spin to all of the “what if” scenarios, take a second to bring yourself back and look at what’s happening right here in front of you. Are your children at school working? Are you home working? Are everyone’s basic needs being met? For kids, are they finishing their work? Are they getting help when needed? Do they have time to talk to friends? Focusing on what is right now, helps decrease anxious thoughts. 
  1. Intentional Self Care: Take some time to build into your child’s and your schedule ways to physically and mentally take care of yourselves. Spend time in nature and make sure to keep your electronics in your pockets. Focus energies on things you can do together like cooking or playing a game. Make bed-time routines more extravagant and relaxing by adding essential oils and bubble baths. Intentionally bring up worries, and then decide to let them go for the day. Doing these things on purpose instead of as passive activities that we just go through the motions on can help you and your child feel more relaxed and refreshed. Remember, with extra stress there is a need for extra stress relief.  
  1. Get it Out of Your Head: Another way to help you and kids to focus on the moment is to get things out of your head and put them down on paper. Write for your child on sticky notes and save them to address later on. Write down the lists of things that you yourself are worried about. Oftentimes, the list is not as long as it feels in our head, but because we are repeating it to ourselves consciously or unconsciously, it feels enormous. 
  1. What You Do Know: You don’t have all the answers to every question. But when we focus on the answers we do know, it helps ease our discomfort with the unknown. We are telling ourselves we are in control by focusing on what we do know. Some examples include – You’ll continue to get through this time the same as everyone else, everyone will be figuring this out too, there will likely be difficulties, but it is also likely that you’ll get through it.
  1. Deep Breaths: Remember to breathe! When we are stressed, our breathing becomes shallow and uncontrolled. We feel light headed and then even more overwhelmed. In the moments of great buildup, remind yourself and kids to take a deep breath and let what cannot be controlled go. 

There are so many more specific facets into going back to school. But for now, hopefully these few tips help validate your feelings and give you a starting to point to getting worries under control.

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