Every September, parents rely on their kids’ school routines, clinging to the comfort that they are, for the most part, safe, comfortable and unchanging — a far cry from the back-to-school experience parents are facing right now amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
While school reopening plans vary across the country, schools in several states — including Indiana, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Georgia and Tennessee — have already had to change course after in-person learning resulted with students and school staff testing positive for the coronavirus.
With life as we know it constantly in flux, Yahoo Life Mental Health Contributor, Dr. Jen Hartstein, shares tips on how parents can cope with the anxiety-producing unknowns that come with 2020’s back-to-school season.
Make a plan — to the extent that it’s possible
Hartstein suggests creating solutions for hypothetical changes that could arise during the school year.
“The best way to deal with feeling overwhelmed is to come up with as good a plan as possible,” Hartstein explains. “There's no way to make it perfect because the markers keep changing, but can you start to plan for what’s going to happen if kids are only in school two days a week? Who can you lean on?”
While there’s no ‘one size fits all’ backup plan, Hartstein suggests making arrangements ahead of time that could be put into place if needed. “Maybe there's ways to socially distance a small group class in your own house so you can work together,” she explains. “Maybe one parent monitors on a Monday, one parent monitors on a Wednesday, so that work can still be done.”
Hartstein also advises parents to insert themselves into the conversation, and be a part of school meetings so that they can have their concerns heard, which can help be as prepared as possible.
Ask work for flexibility
Another important aspect to tackle as soon as possible, Hartstein tells Yahoo Life, is alerting your employer that circumstances could come up in the school year that would require your schedule to change.
“Don't be afraid to talk to your employer about having some flexibility at work,” she explains. “We're going to need that now more than ever, and we can't be afraid to ask for that, it that's something we really need.”
Stick to what works for you
Hartstein explains that now is a time for parents to stay strong in their personal values regarding what’s right for their children and no one else’s.
“Everyone has an opinion on what we're supposed to be doing, and it can be hard to filter through the facts, what you agree with and what you don’t,” she says. “The core value has to come from yourself and what's best for your family.”
Hartstein explains that if you feel that your child needs to have a mask on at all time around others and you don’t feel comfortable sharing any toys, that’s for you to decide, and you don’t have to agree with other parents around you.
“You have to filter out all the excessive noise, because there is so much of it, and just sit in your own value, stand by what you believe in, and keep moving forward,” she says.
Be gentle with your child’s emotions
Many parents are going to be dealing with the emotions and anxieties of their children in a new way, Hartstein says, because this is not the school they know.
“It's important to let your child know that what they're feeling makes sense,” she explains. “Don't ask them to snap out of it, tell them to get over it. They're allowed to feel what they're feeling.”
Hartstein explains that validating your children’s emotions is the first step to helping them cope with this difficult time.
Practice problem-solving with your kids
She also suggests parents practice some problem-solving with their kids so they’re more prepared for it while at school.
“For little ones, having to be in class with a mask, or not being able to hug their friends, it's going to be a challenge,” Hartstein says. “You can practice [with scenarios] like, ‘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 from getting too close?’.”
Hartstein suggests even practicing virtual-learning at home with kids, so that they understand what’s expected of them when faced with new challenges.
Be ready for change
As seen in schools across the country already, school plans are changing frequently and parents need to be comfortable with the idea of change being the new normal.
“While some are in school to begin with, it could end up that we're all back on online learning and working from home, so we have to work on being flexible and trying to go with the flow,” Hartstein says. “For some of us that's easy, we just are built that way. For other people, it's really hard.”
Especially for parents who may be experiencing high levels of anxiety, Hartstein says that swift changes can be triggers that are very difficult to manage.
“The world is an anxious and overwhelmed place right now, and the energy around us is really with so much intensity,” she says, “Be patient, recognize that everyone is doing the best they can, and dealing with disappointment and frustration and sadness, which clouds our ability to be flexible.”
Hartstein says that feelings of irritability and sadness are perfectly normal for parents right now. “If you just need to take a time out, take a time out. That's okay, just get back into it because you can't avoid it forever,” she says. “Take care of yourself, which allows you to take care of other people more effectively.”
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