By Rayne Lacko, author of Dream Up Now: The Teen Journal for Creative Self-Discovery
Going back to school can be stressful for children in the best of times, but a global pandemic can create emotional challenges that cause young people to feel more nervous or reluctant than ever before. Here are five tips for managing the emotions—both your child’s and your own—of going back to school.
1. Help Your Child Feel More Connected to Their Classroom and Friends
Many children in the United States have not interacted in person or online with their classmates for several weeks or months. Whether your child is returning to school in person or virtually, their perceived (and real) experience of distance can create a feeling of emotional disconnection, making it challenging to return to class with a sense of belonging and inclusion. That feeling of distance may be underscored when, in person, students are expected to wear masks and maintain physical distance at all times, including during breaks and at lunch. Similarly, in online classroom platforms, many students sit in silence, answering only when the teacher calls on them.
Beginning today, I urge you to encourage your child to think about ways to bridge their feelings of distance to stay connected. Here are a few ideas:
- Set up and monitor the safe use of online games, social media, and video chat.
- Encourage your child to speak up, using their voice online to share their views in class. Doing this helps others gain the courage to reply, beginning a dialogue.
- Encourage your child to support other students who bravely speak up in class by replying or adding to the conversation.
- Reassure your child if they feel frustrated by wearing a mask, especially when playing, by pointing out how mask-wearing is the kindest and most proactive thing a young person can do to keep families safe and to take care of more vulnerable members of your community.
These thoughtful gestures help distanced learners feel heard, connected, and valued.
2. Check In Daily on How Your Child Is Coping
Children’s emotions will fluctuate, and it’s vital for them (and you) to know that this is natural and okay. Engaging in creative activities, such as movement, collage, or drawing, helps children express feelings they’re experiencing in a low-pressure and safe way. Making art helps children communicate difficult feelings, such as anger, fear, or sadness, and relieves stress. It also gives them an opportunity to accomplish something personal to them. Praising your child’s art and asking for more is a healthy way of telling your kid that their feelings are safe with you.
It’s essential to remember that children tend pick up on emotional cues from the primary adults in their lives. How you manage your emotions can significantly help your child approach theirs. Find and engage in the creative projects that bring you joy and produce a sense of wellness and calm. Giving yourself love and time for self-care positively impacts how your child assesses their own situation and reaction. Your child looks to you as a positive role model; you can offer your support by proactively managing your own fears and stress. Treat yourself as gently and compassionately as you would your child.
Together, seek out coping strategies for managing emotions, such as downtime away from screens to:
- Do an art project
- Listen to or play music
- Dance or do yoga
- Sing together
- Cook or bake together
Creating something out of nothing using your creativity and patience can prove a highly rewarding bonding experience.
3. Accept Uncertainty
Author and journalist Gail Sheehy said, “If we don’t change, we don’t grow. If we don’t grow, we aren’t really living.” Change is the forward-moving energy of life, and change allows you to build the future you most wish to live by letting go of what used to be. While the pandemic may have instilled feelings of uncertainty, the lovely truth is that nothing in life has ever been certain.
Resilience is a personal quality that allows you to bounce back from loss, because you understand that the status quo is temporary (Allison, 2012). Once you embrace that everything is temporary, you have great power to create your very best now. Acknowledging that life offers unknowns while assuring your child that your love is unconditional and grows with them, can help you both feel more accepting of every emotion, dark and light.
If you are struggling with your own pain about uncertainty, consider who you would like to become instead. In “How to Handle Anxiety Over Back-to-School Decisions,” psychiatrist Pooja Lakshmin asks, “Five years from now, how would you like to have shown up for your family during the pandemic? How do you want your children to remember this time?” Put your energy now into what would be meaningful to you. You can do this by:
- Taking things one day at a time and enjoying the current day
- Helping your child envision success at school and in friendships; visualizing themselves succeeding is, for many people, the first step to achieving real success
- Understanding that feeling good and being happy does not limit or devalue anyone who is struggling
- Accepting that your moments of joy are just as contagious as your sadness and can help spread positivity in your family and community
- Making a realistic plan each day to keep yourself, family, teachers, and friends safe by committing to safe practices: wearing masks, washing hands, and adequately distancing
“It’s helpful to remember that in times of chaos, the dogged search for certainty can itself lead to distress,” says Dr. Lakshmin. “It’s not the worry itself that’s the problem, it’s what you do with it.” Cultivating resilience promotes energy to sustain change, and also gain happiness.
4. Pay Attention to Grief but Look for the Positive
Grief is the natural response to being disappointed when something didn’t turn out the way you expected. Instead of dwelling on the ways in which the upcoming school year may not measure up to your expectations or focusing on disappointment over what your family has lost, you can significantly improve your child’s outlook by building resilience. Remember that life has always been filled with change, and emphasize the possibility for good, growth, and wonder to come out of the unexpected.
To help foster resilience in times of strife and loss, ask your child hope-filled questions to begin shaping a positive view of the present moment:
- What is the best opportunity this situation could lead to?
- What are your talents and skills that others appreciate?
- Letting go of what used to be, what is your new hope for the future? What can you do now to make it happen?
- What do you want to celebrate today?
5. Praise Your Child for Being Courageous
As the school year gets underway, praise your child for finding reasons for joy each day, for committing to speaking up in class, and for finding ways to bond with classmates. Let them know that their positive actions will help them enjoy the best possible outcomes at school this fall. It’s true that school will not look like it did in previous years, but that doesn’t mean wonderful moments of connection, learning, and growth aren’t possible.
When you see your child do something you know is hard for them, or is brave or caring, let them know you’ve noticed and are proud of them for their courage and positive outlook. Consider making a list of rewards for speaking up in class, reaching out to friends, setting goals for the future, and thinking of ways to create a better today. These might include:
- Family board games or video games
- Building a blanket fort and curling up with books (even teens appreciate this)
- Preparing a favorite meal or dessert
- Learning a new skill together, such as knitting or sewing, editing short videos, or painting with watercolors
Keep an eye out for signs of stress and worry in your child. Emotions can fluctuate, especially if your child is hearing more about reasons to be distressed than reasons to build resilience. It’s important to remember that it’s normal to feel overwhelmed at times, but like all things these feelings are temporary and will change. Your daily care and support are the constants your child can count on.
Allison, E. “The Resilient Leader.” Educational Leadership 69, no. 4 (January 2012): 79–82. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/dec11/vol69/num04/The-Resilient-Leader.aspx.
Lakshmin, P. “How to Handle Anxiety Over Back-to-School Decisions.” The New York Times, July 29, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/29/parenting/schools-reopening-parents-decision-kids.html.
Rayne Lacko is a Young Adult author and an advocate for the arts as a form of social and emotional well-being. A teen-writing mentor, she cohosts a youth creative workshop, an annual writing camp, and a teen arts showcase. Through her work, she inspires young people and their families to use creativity to stimulate positive change in their lives and communities. Rayne lives near Seattle, Washington, with her spouse and two boys (a pianist and a drummer), a noisy cat, and her canine best friend.
Rayne is the author of Dream Up Now™: The Teen Journal for Creative Self-Discovery.
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