Q&A with Dr. Jolie Silva: How to Manage Back to School Stress

Today I want to talk about something that’s been on most parents’ minds–back to school. Usually, this time of year means buying backpacks & pencils, not hand sanitizer and face masks! This type of school stress is a change for everyone.

I’ve heard many of you voice questions and worries recently, like: 

  • Is going back to school safe? 
  • How do I calm my anxiety? 
  • What can I do to balance work and childcare? 
  • How can I get my child to wear their mask?
  • What do I do if my child is anxious about school?

It’s endless. What I thought might be helpful is to go through some questions that I’ve been getting from different people and go through them one by one and see if I can offer any guidance.

I want to send my children to school but I am afraid they will get sick and I don’t feel like it’s safe. I don’t know how to make the right decision and I am feeling overwhelmed with anxiety. How can I get through this stress?

I really see this question in three parts. The first question is, “I want to send my children to school but I am afraid they will get sick. How do I make that decision?”

That’s a tough one. I was up until one in the morning the other night, trying to make this decision myself – this is not easy. When you make any decision, a good recommendation is to first make sure you are clarifying your values.

What is important to you? If you have a spouse or a partner, sit down and see if both of you are on the same page with regard to your values.

Your values might be your child’s mental health, their social and emotional health, physical health, physical health of your family, financial security, being able to continue your career, etc.

When you begin this process, it helps to know and accept that something has got to give. There is no way in this situation that you can make a decision that fulfills all of your values completely. It’s very likely not possible, given these circumstances. We need to start giving ourselves a
little bit of a free pass here!

All you can do is determine what is important to us, how we are going to prioritize things, and you weigh out the pros and cons of each decision. We’re doing the best we can, this back to school stress is a lot to manage. The absolute worst case scenario is you wind up going back on the decision, and that’s okay too.

The second part of this question is, “I’m feeling overwhelmed with anxiety, how can I manage this stress?”

I am hearing this all over the place – not just with my patients but with friends and family. Anxiety levels are heightened across the board.
Frustration, irritability, sadness. So, how do you manage the stress and anxiety during this time?

What I highly highly recommend, even if you feel as though it is completely
impossible, is to set aside time where you are alone. Do things for self-care like:

Some of these things probably sound like common sense, but I can’t tell you how important this is.

With everything going on, my child is scared to go back to school this year. How can I help them feel more at ease?

This is tough, right? We don’t want to create a germ phobia in children, yet we all have germ phobia right now to a certain degree because that is what
the environment is calling for. A rational education to your kids about what it means to spread germs and what social distancing means is going to be the most helpful.

If they touch something, try not to go into a panic! We don’t want our children having a panic response around those kinds of things, nor do we want ourselves to build that habit. Let’s simply educate them about what’s going on right now. We can tell them that this is temporary and that eventually things won’t be like this anymore.

My child has a lot of friends at school but isn’t particularly close with one person or group. I have noticed that as other kids have started to socialize in small groups online, she hasn’t been invited or included. How can I help her feel more connected to her peers during distance learning?

When there are issues with children being excluded, not included with friends, or having some social difficulties, my first questions are always about social cue deficits. This describes when kids don’t pick up on those nuances of social communication the way some other kids do.

If we think it is more of a social anxiety (shyness would fall under that
category), it’s a different story. It is still a social skills deficit, but it is not a social cue deficit.

I’ve seen this in my practice a number of times over the course of the
pandemic. What I recommend is having the parent gently encourage the kid to reach out to specific people in the friend group separately to form these bonds. Maybe there is some kind of discomfort being in the group, but your child really likes this one person.

Reaching out to individuals sometimes is less intimidating than reaching out to the group as a whole. In order to foster friendships, not every kid
needs to or thrives in being in a group a friend group. Some people are perfectly content and happy having a couple of close friends and that’s it.

Try to figure out what it is your child really desires in their social world.

I hear some parents in my neighborhood talking about doing learning pods, which I can’t afford. How can I manage my guilt around not being able to provide my child with the same opportunity?

Cue that mommy guilt. It gets you at every turn, doesn’t it?

Guilt is this belief that you’ve made a mistake, that you’ve done something that is not congruent with your values. Not being able to afford a tutor – it’s not a mistake. You didn’t do anything wrong. You’re doing the best you can.

Continually reminding yourself that you’re doing the best you can will help counteract any guilt you might feel. Moms have guilt because they stay home with their kids and don’t work, so they’re guilty because they’re not providing them with a model of a working woman. Working moms have guilt
because they work and aren’t there for their kids as much.

Moms are going to find guilt in anything they possibly can – it’s really hard to ignore these perfectionistic pressures. Not being able to afford a tutor or a pod or a home teacher is not a mistake. It is the circumstances. There has to be an acceptance of, “I am doing the best I can with what I have.”

When we move forward through this pandemic, we need to do our best to learn how to change the things we can and accept the things we can’t.

I feel like my college-aged son is not taking COVID-19 seriously enough. How can I get him to take this seriously and respect the dangers of the pandemic, especially when he goes back to school?

Tough one, right? We have many people in that age group not taking it seriously. Remember: the adolescent brain develops until age 26, not 18.

You’re really dealing with a developing brain that still engages in magical thinking – thinking they’re invincible, egocentrism, etc.

Sit down with a college age student, in a non-critical, non-judgmental way.
If you accuse your child of bad behavior, you’re going to get defensiveness.
Having a neutral, non-judgmental approach and saying, “Well, let’s just talk through this. What are the things that you value in your life? What is important to you?”

This may be friends, school, etc. Go through the things that your child thinks they’ll miss out on. Go through some of the possible consequences of behaving in the way that they’re currently behaving. Also explore what it is that they’re scared of missing. FOMO, right?

Work through that. Ask how they can find a balance here. How can they continue to have some healthy social interaction without putting themselves or your family at physical risk. This should be a collaborative discussion, not finger wagging!

Thank you so much for reading, I hope you found this even just a little bit helpful. If you have any questions, any comments please feel free to reach out to us.

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