6 Ways Parents Can Manage Anxiety During This Truly Bonkers Back-to-School Season
You were all set for the first day of blended learning…until a third-grade teacher tested positive for Covid and the whole school went remote. Your middle schooler logged onto her second morning of distance learning only to find that the server was down and nobody in the class could access Google classroom. Your six-year-old woke up with a runny nose, causing you to tailspin into an existential crisis about whether or not you’ll ever feel comfortable sending him to IRL school again.
There’s no getting around it. Parents are stressed AF right now. In fact, some have likened this widespread anxiety to a mental health crisis. But while there may not be a fix for your school’s truly confusing schedule (Cohort C attending on some Mondays and every third Wednesday…) or your child’s seasonal allergies, there are coping mechanisms that you can start to implement now. We chatted with child and family psychologist Dr. Karen Caraballo to find out six of them.
1. Get dressed every day and stick to a schedule: There’s not a lot of structure and order in the world right now, but one way to exert control and get a grip on your sanity is to create and stick to a daily routine. Says Dr. Caraballo: “Make a schedule and post it in an area that everyone can see. Divide the day into predictable segments. Include time for rest, fun and exercise. Schedule time to enjoy lunch or dinner together.” In short, by giving everyone the expectation that you are up, dressed and fed by 8 am, then at your desks by 9, you can avoid the daily fights, as well as the understandable feeling that life is totally adrift. Clearly, you’ll need to exhibit flexibility. (The pod got moved from Jamal’s house to Ada’s? Ok then, we’ll leave the house earlier today!) But by laying out expectations, you’re more likely to promote both internal and familial harmony.
2. Prioritize self-care: We know, major eye roll. No mom on earth (unless she has extensive help) has the time or money for regular massages, bath bombs or 12-ingredient skincare routines. But Dr. Caraballo is clear that self-care really just means basic activities that prioritize your own mental and physical wellbeing. And these can totally be small: Take a shower, read a murder mystery or schedule an appointment to have that mole on your shoulder looked at. Dr. Caraballo says you can also talk about self-care with your kids and let them choose their own self-care activities.
3. Stop comparing your family to others: The Johnsons are homeschooling. The Singhs are podding. Suzie from down the block is redshirting her son and bringing in a textile artist to teach him batik. Guess what? It doesn’t matter. This year, everyone will be making different decisions—and ultimately all we can do is make the best ones for our own families. “Comparing yourself to others never makes you a better parent,” warns Dr. Caraballo. “But it can increase your anxiety, make you feel inadequate, inferior, depressed and make self-defeating choices.” Instead? “Practice gratitude and embrace your uniqueness.” Easier said than done. But do try to tune out the gossip and at the very least, remember that nobody actually has it all pulled together. (Even Suzie.)
4. Try the 5-4-3-2-1 method: Caught in an anxiety spiral and feel like you might explode? Dr. Caraballo explains that doing targeted activities to ground yourself in the present and interrupt negative thoughts can prevent you from fortune telling or getting too far into the future. (But without a normal kindergarten experience she’ll never get into Princeton!) Here’s the deal: “The 5-4-3-2-1 technique consists of naming five things you can see, four sounds you can hear, three things you can feel, two smells from your surroundings and something you can taste.” Take a beat, and name them all. In short, it forces you to pause, step away from your worries and maybe just maybe appreciate your present.
5. Identify and accept your feelings: Life is really hard and stressful right now and it’s OK to admit you’re feeling that way. Dr. Caraballo explains: “All emotions are necessary and when we reject, avoid or try to forget them, it can affect us. Acceptance helps us to be aware of our emotions by knowing that they will not last forever.” What might this look like? Telling your spouse you’re sad about the school year (instead of passive-aggressively harrumph-ing your way through the kitchen). Starting a journal to list the things that are stressing you out—but also the stuff you’re grateful for. Calling a friend to complain about the impossible to understand synchronous learning schedule. You can also be honest with your kids about your feelings: “Yes, I’m angry that field hockey got cancelled this year. I know it’s the right decision, but it’s still really frustrating.”
6. Hug yourself (literally and figuratively): We can all use a dose of compassion right now, and while we should definitely extend this compassion to others, it’s extra important to bestow it on ourselves. Dr. Caraballo suggests writing a letter to yourself from a good friend. What would she tell you to boost your spirits? How would he speak about the choices you’ve made? You can also wrap your arms around yourself and squeeze as tight as you can. “This helps release feel-good emotions that reduce stress.” Plus, it’s a good reminder that even in a period of social distancing, your body is real—and deserves embracing.