Parenting Through An Unfamiliar Back-to-School Season

Medically reviewed by: Wendy Rasmussen, PhD
Friday, September 24 2021

In this article, Dr. Doug Newton, Chief Medical Officer of SonderMind, shares some tips to navigate anxiety and anxiety-related feelings as your family transitions back to school, whether virtual or in-person.

We can all agree we never thought we’d be navigating a pandemic and trying to simultaneously give our kids the school experience — elementary, middle, or high — that they deserve. It’s hard, and there are still a lot of unknowns. You want to be able to support your kids in the best way possible, but we’re all still learning as we go. 

Many questions might come up from your children. Things like, “When can it go back to normal?”, “Why can’t I see some of my friends yet?”, and even the big question of “Why is this happening?” If you’re getting these questions, know that it is totally typical behavior and nothing to worry about. 

That said, you might want some tips and tricks to help navigate anxiety and other anxiety-related feelings that arise in you and your kids’ transition back to school, whether that be virtual or in-person. Here are some things to look out for.

Understanding anxiety

Anxiety can show itself in many different ways. One way to look at it is through the 3 A’s and the 3 F’s. 

The three A’s of anxiety are: 

  • Avoidance: Steering clear of situations that you used to be okay with.
  • Ambivalence: Having a hard time making simple decisions.
  • Anticipation: Overthinking to the point where it feels like you want to turn your brain off. 

An infographic that details the 3 A’s of Anxiety (Avoidance, Ambivalence, Anticipation) 
Expecting the 3 A’s of Anxiety (Avoidance, Ambivalence, Anticipation) 

The three F’s of anxiety are:

  • Flight Response: Running away from your problems.
  • Freeze Response: Not doing anything at all.
  • Fight Response: If all else fails, we fight our way through.
An infographic that details the 3 F’s of Anxiety (Flight, Freeze, Fight Responses)
Understanding the 3 F’s of Anxiety (Flight Response, Freeze Response, Fight Response)

Now that you know about the 3 A’s and 3 F’s, you may be wondering: what am I supposed to do with this information? Let’s break our strategy out into two sections: learning hacks and life hacks. 

Learning hacks to help kids in remote or hybrid learning setups

Set a proper learning environment.

Remove any extra electronics from the room your kids are in for online learning. And try to avoid having them in their bed while online. Sure it’s their “space,” but distinguishing different work and rest areas can help reduce sleep disruption and create structure for kids. 

Take breaks.

As a good rule of thumb, 15-minute learning sessions are usually the most successful. So if your kids are 30 minutes in and you’re losing their attention, that’s okay! Just a good signal that it might be time for a quick break.

Get outside.

Study after study shows nature is a “reset” for our brains. This is true for people of all ages, so get out in the sunshine with your kids when you can! Raining? Indoor screen breaks can be effective as well. Try a quick dance break, or take a few minutes to work on a family puzzle.

Fidget items and “active” seating. 

Common fidget items include gum, fidget spinners, stress balls, etc. Just Google “fidget toys,” and you’ll get lots of options! You can also use an exercise ball instead of a chair, so your kids have a way to release energy while still doing schoolwork.

Alright, let’s move on to life hacks. Here are some basic tips for handling anxiety with children in the middle of a pandemic. Easier said than done! 

Tips for handling pandemic (or general) anxiety

Step 1: Managing your emotions

Normalize the situation and understand you are not alone.  

We all feel more isolated and lonely. Our children need to know it's normal to feel that way. Be vulnerable. Let them know you may still also be scared some days.

Often anxiety and fear come from feeling a lack of control. 

Help them understand what is in their control. Things like hand washing and wearing a mask in close public areas can give some sense of agency.

Distract from what is not in our control.

There are many things out of our control, but how can we shift that focus? It does not always have to refocus on things in our control. It can be as simple as spending some extra time together or doing something different like a quick trip out for ice cream. 

Step 2: Recognizing emotions in others

Show increased compassion.

Being mindful and respectful of others' experiences and feelings. Now more than ever, we can all show ourselves, our friends, family members, and neighbors a little more kindness and forgiveness than usual. 

Compassion is more contagious than COVID-19.

Take a moment each day to ask other members of the family how they are feeling. You may be surprised by their response.  

Step 3: Problem Solving

Stop the world” by taking a break in a heated situation.  

We all are a little more on edge these days. Start by everyone going to their respective corners in the fighting ring. A “time-out” is not a punishment, it’s just a pause button.

Identify and say what the problem is.  

Harder than it sounds, right? Especially when there’s a brother or sister involved. Try to think from an outside perspective. How would a stranger view this situation? How would they identify the problem at hand?

Help identify a few solutions. 

An easy way to engage children in “solutioning” is to turn it into a game. Ask, “Who can give me the most solutions in 5 minutes?”. 

Give pros and cons to a couple of solutions and choose the best one.

This doesn’t need to be a huge spreadsheet, but quickly jotting down pros and cons can help you get clarity and show your kids how you approach problem-solving. 

Step 4: Problem Solving

Families are more important than ever.

Now’s the perfect time to work towards incorporating more parent-child 1:1 time into your routine. Even a quick trip to the grocery store for a treat or running through a drive-thru can provide substantial bonding time for you and your kids.

Peers continue to be important. 

Keep in mind that your kids likely still miss their friends. It’s as simple as that. Think of ways to continue to bond with their friends virtually - whether that be through a video game or just some weekly video calls. 

Step 5: Ask for Help

Always know that you are not alone. If you ever feel like you or your kids can’t handle the stressors associated with anxiety, reach out to professional help. Visit our emergency resources list, and know that most are available 24/7, via text, online chat, or phone call.

We hope these tips are helpful for you. And remember, be kind to yourself! At the end of the day, you’re living through a pandemic, and that’s pretty remarkable in and of itself.

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