This year has been anything but ordinary.
Usually, I would be writing a typical post about kids returning to school and the advice we might have in helping them transition back to school after a fun-filled summer. I would typically tell you to consider getting the kids a check-up, updating their immunizations, beginning to transition them back into a solid bedtime routine, and cutting back on electronic games and watching TV. I would generally encourage healthy meals and good hydration as we prepare the kids and teens to return to school.
Don’t get me wrong. These are all good things and great advice. And if you search for suitable resources like healthychildren.org, the American Academy of Pediatrics Parenting Website, and our canyonviewmedical.com website, you can find great information on any of these topics.
But again, this year has been anything but ordinary.
COVID-19 has taken us all on a wild ride. As health care providers, we try hard to be ready for the unexpected and prepared to help reduce suffering, provide information, offer emotional comfort, and help guide our community. Despite this, none of us were quite ready for a pandemic, even though we have studied them for years. Back at the beginning of 2020, just like families at home, we frantically tried to keep up with the constant changes and rapidly consumed all the information we could gather about this disease. We made policies that we then had to adjust every 2-3 days as new information and guidelines came forward.
At night, we went through the same struggles and constant changes with our families – worries about our kids, our parents, our community, our personal health risks, and our jobs. It seemed like we were all a little discombobulated like we were spinning in circles while trying our best to continue walking in a straight line. Some days were better than others. And some days, anxiety was the prevailing emotion.
Unfortunately, living life and its constant changes have never really been good at soothing our anxieties. Life has always been unpredictable. Even before COVID-19, every day, the algorithm of life was uncontrollable. COVID-19 just brought the awareness of that unpredictability to all of us, almost universally, at the same time. We all collectively gasped, twisted our hands, and started to panic. We have had nearly six months to marinate in this worry, and now we are trying to pull ourselves together and help our kids go back to school.
School is so very important. Huge actually. It needs to be right, feel right, and do right. And starting the school year, in average years, is stressful. We are worried about getting the right teacher, the right classroom, the right clothes, and shoes. We still have all of these worries, just piled on top of the COVID ones. Somehow we need to tame our anxieties and be successful this year.
So my advice today stems from a joke – a cartoon I once saw.
A boss, sick with concern, asks his employee, “How will we achieve our goals this year?” The employee flippantly responds, “Set different goals.”
I recognize that we cannot entirely shift our worries and anxiety this year; it might not be wise to try. This year, I am trying to teach myself and my kids to acknowledge the unwanted companion named “fear,” “worry,” or “anxiety,” and then to adjust and modify our typical expectations so that we can better see our successes and build upon them.
Healthychildren.org recommends, “As kids return to school, it’s important to keep an eye out for stress and anxiety in your child that could be a result of these changes. This can take shape in many different ways, including an increase in physical symptoms, changes in sleep patterns, continually seeking reassurance despite already receiving an answer, and acting out.”
I would add that these are great warning signs for us as adults also.
The advice goes on, “It is important that adults manage their own emotions regarding the pandemic and remain calm, listen to their children’s concerns, speak kindly, and reassure them.”
When asked about the kids managing masks and the stresses of returning to school, I recently heard a pediatrician say something like, “The kids will do as well as their parents tell them they can. This has always been true.” Adults and parents managing their own emotions and remaining calm are a powerful influence on their kids.
The article continues, “To help support your child’s mental health about the changes at school as a result of COVID-19, parents should:
- Encourage conversation about the new protocols and safety rules
- Acknowledge and validate the child’s feelings if they are scared or anxious
- Reassure the child that a lot of adults are working hard to keep everyone safe.”
It is important to remember that if your child’s anxious behaviors persist despite the above interventions, contact a trusted health care provider, mental health provider, or school counselor.
You can access a lot of great information on how to talk to your kids about mask-wearing, myth busters statements about masks, and why the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”, on their education site at Healthychildren.org
So as the fall season blows in, and recess bells and school traffic zones come as a sliver of a return to normality, we will try to breathe deeply and slowly.
We will remind ourselves that the way we view things and talk about them significantly impacts our moods and our children’s moods.
We will remember that there is hope in the idea that having to rethink everything might bring about beautiful changes we didn’t even see that we needed.
We will rejoice in the idea that this group of kids and teens will be more flexible and resilient than they otherwise might have been and that they might value the “essential workers” with greater esteem than the generations before them.
We hope the kids and teens will become the wise leaders of the future because of the many lessons they have learned during the pandemic – struggles, anxieties, and resilience.