The Scariest Three Words

The Scariest Three Words
Sara L. Manewith, AM, Director and Julia Draper, LCPC, Asst. Director, Response for Teens

“Back to School” has always been met with a bit of ambivalence, especially from our young people.  While many have typically looked forward to seeing friends and sharing stories of summer fun, those back-to-school ads also hearken to early wake-up times, structured schedules, cool weather, and homework.

This fall “back to school” has a whole new meaning.  And for many families, that meaning is, as yet, unknown:  Will my children be “in school” in person? Remotely? In some hybrid-fashion?  Will they be able to stay safe and healthy? If they return to school, will they be on an almost permanent quarantine, unable to see grandparents?

As all these questions swirl in parents’ heads, they are surely taking up a significant amount of space in the thoughts of your young people, too.  As parents and caregivers, one of the most important things you do is set an emotional tone in your home.  Under these most challenging and uncertain times, this may be more important than ever. 

One of the most important things you can do for your young person is to set a tone of calm and stability in your home.  Here are a few things to think about as you navigate this fall’s return to school.

  • Acknowledge the stress that the last few months have caused and may very well continue to cause. Can you find other places for it?  Commiserating with your spouse or partner, friends and family, or other parents not only provides you with a place to vent, but you may be able to find creative solutions together. It may be especially hard during COVID to find a time and a place to vent:  we’re all home together more, perhaps in close quarters.  Acknowledge this challenge with your young person and ask – and offer – some time alone.
  • Acknowledge your grief, too.  We have all experienced so much loss – of expectations, of plans, and for some, of loved ones.  Grief and loss can feel so heavy; It may be easier to be furious at your school-district’s choices (or those of other parents and families) than to acknowledge how sad you might be.  As a parent, you have the double burden of helping to hold your children’s grief, too.
  • Find ways to manage your own discomfort and worry.  You may have to make difficult decisions about returning to school, participation in activities, seeing friends and family.  You may feel worry, guilt, fear and uncertainty.  Try to find outlets for your worry so that you can be present w/ your young people without making COVID a part of every conversation and interaction.
  • One way to manage some of the anxiety and uncertainty is to take a breather.  Yes, it’s important to stay on top of your school district’s news and information, as well as on the latest ways to stay healthy, but too much news can lead to spiraling worry.  This can also be a good way to model to your young person how to manage anxiety, worry and uncertainty. 
  • Find ways to be comfortable w/ uncertainty.  Searching for certainty can actually lead to distress:  the constant search for the “right” answer, the most knowledgeable advisor, the correct science can lead us on a never-ending search, causing agitation and insecurity.  While life almost always throws us curveballs, change and instability are an even greater part of life right now.  Acknowledge to yourself, and your young person, that plans may change.  And change again. 
  • Discern what you can control and what you can’t.  You can control aspects of your homelife including dinner hour, a chore schedule, or a family night.  Importantly for your teen, establishing routines can help them have a sense of control.  If school is remote, help them determine where they will “go” to school:  the dining room table? Basement? Back porch? Living room?  What hours will they be expected to be “in school”.  There are a lot more tips on remote learning for 10 – 12th graders available online.
  • Most important, be kind to yourself.  And your young person.  We often say that parenting does not come with a manual, but parenting during a pandemic most certainly does not.  Taking care to practice self-compassion can free up mental space to tackle other difficult tasks.

When you as a parent are better at remaining calm and keeping things in perspective, you are better able to help your loved ones do the same.  Here are some ideas of how to build resiliency in and support your young person during these stressful times:

  • Make time to listen: Whether it’s a regular check-in or spontaneous conversations, it’s important to give your young person space to talk about how they are feeling.  Using active listening skills, such as summarizing what they are saying, can help to offer empathy and validation during difficult times.  Listening will help you learn how they have thought about problems or concerns.  From there, you can collaborate on problem solving.
  • Support Motivation: The stress and uncertainty of the pandemic can make anyone feel powerless and hopeless. Help your young person to harness a sense of self-efficacy by pointing out their strengths in decision-making, managing past difficulties, and their ability to critically think about problem solving. This can help your young person engage in more flexible strategies to problem solving.
  • Develop a Routine: Creating a predictable schedule can serve to provide stability when under duress. As much of your young person’s life may become upended, planning out the day with your young person may be anchoring. If you are able to, your young person may benefit from regular time for family meals, and set wake-up and homework times.  Collaborating on these plans with your young person may help give them a sense of agency as well.
  • Encourage Goal Setting: As the new year starts, this could be a good opportunity to help your young person look at expectations and build reasonable goals.  Think together with your young person to identify a larger goal and then chunk this larger goal into smaller goals. If you are concerned about setting up power struggles, talk about this in the beginning with your young person and think about how much checking in they may need from you.  If you notice recurring arguments about the same issue, this may be a good opportunity to step back, talk about what’s getting in the way and recalibrate. Taking the time to set large and smaller goals will give your young person the opportunity to increase their sense of self-efficacy and gives you the opportunity to celebrate them.