By: Dan Lash, LCMFT | KidsTLC Director of Clinical Compliance
The annual transition from summer to school is an understandably difficult time of year for most families, and then came 2020. With all the predictability of a mid-flight bout of turbulence that knocks your drink over onto you, the person hanging over the edge of the seat next to you, and your bag that just doesn’t want to fit under the seat in front of you, this year’s transition back to school has proven to be a recipe for a whole different type of flight. As families are forced to consider factors that a year ago seemed unimaginable, and where every decision seems to carry significant sacrifice, families have attempted to navigate the transition to a school year like none of us have ever known. With all of this uncertainty, how do we move forward? How will families cope with this ever-changing landscape and maintain some semblance of what used to feel “normal?” Let’s talk about some ideas that may help you and your family manage in times that can feel unmanageable.
We as humans are creatures of habit. We thrive on routine and predictability, and it seems like this year has made holding these patterns extremely difficult. At a time when many of our routines have gone by the wayside, finding ways to establish healthy structures and predictability are incredibly important. We’ve seen a significant increase in anxiety, especially considering that none of us were prepared for the impact of all of these factors coming together at once. For parents, structure starts with you. When you get on an airplane and they give you the pre-flight talk, they don’t say “If the cabin depressurizes, when you finish panicking, make sure everyone around you has their mask on before putting on your mask.” Why? You’re no good to those who depend on you if you can’t breathe! If you’re not doing the work to make sure you’re staying in a good place, you’ll see the impact in the people around you. With so many things that are out of our control, finding ways to establish routines that we can control go a long way. Taking a walk in the morning, reading before bed, making sure things like laundry or dishes don’t stack up, or setting a personal schedule that includes time to take care of yourself are all reasonable tasks that can help you feel more in control.
Part of what makes the current unpredictability so difficult to manage is the accompanying anxiety that can easily take over. This anxiety can quickly compound when we feel like, “If we can just make it through this . . .“ whatever this is, but it turns out to be a mirage when we come out on the other side. The relief we were hoping to attain doesn’t materialize, and we may start to feel badly about not being able to feel better. So many parents across the country are struggling with the decision about the best method for school. And, many are disappointed to find that once the decision has been made, they don’t feel better like they anticipated. Unfortunately, anxiety doesn’t come with a switch. It’s not something we can just shut off when we want to feel better. We can, however, learn to turn it down. This can be accomplished through learning to mitigate risk. I have only needed a seatbelt a few times, but I still wear one every time I’m in the car. Mitigating risk will very much depend on the circumstances that each family finds themselves in, but we already do this process on a daily basis. In many cases it’s learning to apply something we already know to new situations as they arise.
Anxiety can have a cascading effect when it comes to our kids. In so many ways they are little sponges, picking up everything good and bad that we carry with us. Kids watch how we cope with stress, and with that in mind we need to be intentional with what we model. It’s important to talk to our kids about the school year in a way that you want them to feel and think. If we speak to them fearfully, that is what they will feel. It is important to remember that these feelings are temporary, and just like everything, they too shall pass. With that in mind, if you want to change a feeling, the best way to do it is with another feeling. So often in times of stress we revert to what we know about dealing with stressful situations, and we forget to play. For kids, the primary way that they learn about the world around them is through play. Finding ways to bring joy into your routine will go a long way in minimizing uncomfortable emotions. Finding ways to play with your kids will go a long way in helping keep you and your family healthy. They will rely on this connection when they start to feel anxious themselves.
Uncertainty breeds anxiety, and we are faced with more uncertainty than many of us have faced in our lifetimes. By working to establish healthy structures, mitigating risks, modeling healthy coping, and working to bring connection and joy into our relationships, we can begin to serve as a buffer against the pressures that our families currently face. It is important to remember that we as humans are inherently resilient and adaptive. Without these qualities we would not have made it as far as we have. So, when you’re surrounded by uncertainty and searching for that path to stability, these qualities can shine in you when you remember to put on your mask first.