Now that we’re past the anxiety of navigating a COVID-19 holiday season, we can transition to thinking about school again.
The truth is, gearing up to spend another semester as teacher, tutor and tech support is daunting for parents.
“We are just tired,” said Ethan Benore, Ph.D., head of Cleveland Clinic Center for Pediatric Behavioral Health. “We are tired from the stress. Tired of the Zoom meetings.”
For kids, who don’t have the perspective adults do, this feeling can be overwhelming.
“The longevity of this situation is taking its toll on everyone,” says Melody Schilt, a
licensed therapist working in Mentor schools for Crossroads Health, a nonprofit mental health provider for individuals and families in Lake County.
In schools mental health providers are seeing a general rise in stress levels, she says, which often leaves kids — and adults — unable to cope with smaller stresses. Miscommunications become meltdowns and teachers and kids alike are short-tempered from being at such a heightened stress level for so long.
“Constant adjustment is difficult for kids because they really thrive on consistency and structure, knowing what’s coming next,” says Amber Thomas, chief clinical officer of child and adolescent programming at Crossroads.
“When you’re in person (for school), you get used to a routine and rhythm,” she says. “As kids are flip-flopping to virtual, it changes that consistency and routine.”
Thomas also points to other challenges kids face learning in the virtual world, including a lack of nonverbal clues and increased difficulty being creative and even paying attention.
“There’s a different kind of energy that happens when you are with people versus virtually,” she says
So, as we send our kids back to school — however that looks in your district — what can we do to ease anxiety and build confidence, putting kids in the right frame of mind to succeed?
Be on the lookout
“If you’re seeing a change in behavior in your kids, that’s a tell-tale sign (of distress),” Thomas says. They might be struggling with trying to learn in a different way or from a lack of socialization. Whatever it is, it can show up in different ways.
Is your talkative kid not sharing as often? Is your quiet kid asking questions? Schilt says these can be signs of stress.
Another sign: the emotional shutdown.
“We keep thinking, ‘Once summer hits it will be fine,’” she says. “‘Once we all come back from winter break, it will be fine.’ It’s a lot easier to avoid the feeling altogether than actually experience it. The longer they hold that in, the bigger the explosion can come from it because you’re supposed to feel your feelings.”
Ask your child how their experience is without leading or projecting. Instead of asking, “Is it weird looking at your teacher through plexiglass or Zoom?” Try: “How was your Zoom class?”
And when they are willing to talk, listen.
“Allow kids to vent,” Benore says. “Taking two to five minutes to be quiet and listen to your child will help. If they have a reasonable question, try to provide a reasonable answer. Information can reduce anxiety from this uncertainty.”
Benore also advises caregivers to limit kids from unnecessary media exposure.
“A lot of the information shared right now can tend to heighten one’s fear,” he says.
Because we are living in a time where it seems there are more questions than answers, Schilt suggests we normalize the uncertainty for our kids. Let them know they are not alone in the way they are feeling.
“Make sure you’re the person they come to,” Schilt says. “The answer still might be that we don’t know, but explain to them why you don’t know.”
Schedule some fun
Add structure and consistency but remember the fun factor, experts say. Virtual school brings a lot of task-oriented work, so
add new routines that involve play and find fun ways to experience old routines.
Board games, daily walks and festive family dinners offer a break and a chance to talk.
Maybe you used to go out for Mexican on Fridays. Plan weekly fiestas at home instead.
“Even if your kid can’t go to gymnastics, find ways to nurture that interest,” Schilt says. “We need to continue to encourage their curiosity, imagination and their passions.”
Get creative. Reach out to other parents to share ideas. Find ways to safely socialize.
“People were really good at doing this in May when we were talking about graduation ceremonies and people driving by and honking for birthdays,” Benore says. “We still need to do it. We’re just tired right now.”
Technology-free nights are important, but remember that not all screen time is a bad thing. In fact, for teens, it may be just what they need.
“Teenagers like to connect, and it’s important for their development,” Benore says. “I think you can forgive yourself if they have the phone or computer with them more than you would like.”
He adds that while social media is a great outlet for teens who may feel isolated, it’s important to set clear rules and expectations.
“Teenagers just struggle thinking things through,” he says. “Help them understand what a good decision is and how to make a good decision. It’s not about just telling them no.”
Help yourself first
“Kids look to the adults,” Schilt says. “They look for us to set the norm and set the standard.”
The key to helping a kid who is out of sorts and struggling is having a parent who is calm and not struggling themselves.
The experts all suggest calling in support where you can, getting regular exercise and engaging in whatever self-care works for you.
“You have to get in a good place before you can get your kids in a good place,” Thomas says.
“Parents often feel like we have to be the strong ones and you don’t want to fall apart in front of your child, but this is worrisome and it has taken its toll on all of us,” Benore says. “Acknowledge it. Put it in perspective. This isn’t going to be a great year, but we are going to get through it.”