A mom’s perspective on managing a pandemic back-to-school season
One morning in early April – for the first time in 390 days – I packed two lunches, made sure my kids had on their school uniforms, loaded them in the car and took our place in the morning carline.
I was glad for my face mask to hide my emotions as a teacher checked their temperatures and they headed up the stairs to their school building – my fifth grade son with a protective arm around his kindergartner sister, a purple Post-It note with her name and her teacher’s name on her chest.
She’d never been inside the building as a student before.
I waited until I pulled out of the school’s parking lot to let the tears come. The feeling was similar to when I teared up getting my first and second doses of the COVID-19 vaccine – a feeling of relief, of grief for the past year, and of hope for moving forward.
Now, as many of us prepare to send our kids back to school, we’re stopping to think: Are our kids okay? They’ve been through a lot. I’ve read many heartbreaking stories over this past year about children’s mental health. Stories of social isolation, stress from distance learning, and anxiety from the pandemic pushing some children to the breaking point.
Other than the nightmare that was remote schooling, my kids have been mostly okay – kids are resilient, right? We’ve had failing grades, some boredom and isolation, way too much screen time, and our fair share of temper tantrums (mostly mine) – but they’re okay.
Now that they’re heading back to school in early August, my worry has shifted. Will they have social anxiety? Will they be okay once they step out of my car? Will this past year have any lingering effects on their mental health?
You might be wondering the same about your kids. So how can we help them? Here are a few ideas.
Connect with a therapist
We sometimes think of therapy as an “adult” thing – maybe you even have old-fashioned images of someone lying on Dr. Freud’s brocaded chaise. I might be tempted to lie down on my therapist’s couch if I’d seen her in person instead of virtually during the pandemic, but that’s really more because I’m always tired these days.
Here’s the deal: therapy is very much for anyone – any age, any walk of life, any “issue” or no issue at all – we can all use some self-improvement, right? Almost one third of American adults have seen a therapist during the pandemic, and 19% are considering it.
Kids can greatly benefit from working with a therapist, too. Many therapists are trained to work with children and teens. Talking to a professional could be helpful for your kids, especially since they haven’t had as many connections to other adults (i.e. teachers, school counselors) to talk through issues with.
Having trouble finding a therapist for your child? You may not be alone. Like with almost any commodity, there has been increased demand this year. To get started, ask your pediatrician for recommendations, or you can check with your health insurance company for in-network providers.
Try not to stress too much about academics
If you’re concerned about your kids’ academic performance, you’re not alone. More than 70% of adults are.
I’m no exception. I’ll be honest – I seriously considered burning my son’s report cards this past school year. And he’s a very smart kid, but also one who is inclined more toward Minecraft than finishing remote schoolwork. And I won’t even get into the woes of doing kindergarten remotely. Let’s just say that 5- and 6-year-olds don’t have the attention span for Zooms.
At the beginning of the school year, I was constantly checking for grades and missing assignments. It would cause me tons of stress, and then there was the nagging and arguing. Then I decided it wasn’t worth it. I made sure they stayed on top of things, to the best of our abilities, and then I let it go.
Fortunately, I saw incredible progress with both of my children when they returned to in-person school in April. I was blown away that my fifth grader was completing assignments without me asking him to. And my daughter started reading. She couldn’t have told me a Z from an H a few months earlier.
Let’s just give our kids some grace, remembering that millions of other children are in the same boat, and know they’ll catch up academically. What’s more important during the pandemic—whether they’re in school virtually or in person—is that they feel safe and loved.
(By the way, I know this is much easier a pill to swallow if your kids are young like mine are, and their grades won’t affect their chances of going to college. But even if you have high schoolers, you can still give them some grace.)
Back to the basics
I have ADHD and therefore I’m pretty terrible with routine, or even sometimes with remembering to feed my kids lunch. (Don’t worry, they don’t let me forget.)
My distraction may be more intense than for others, but I think that it’s also been pretty universal during the pandemic – parents, especially working parents, are stressed and tired and our brains are foggy. So give yourself a break if your kids eat cereal for dinner now and then, or stay up late watching a Marvel movie on Disney Plus. They’ll be fine.
That said, little humans (like big humans) need their sleep, proper nutrition, and getting outside for some fresh air and exercise. It’s all so important for good mental health.
Let them have fun
Social interaction has been super tricky this past year when it comes to children who are too young for vaccination. My youngest is a total extrovert and craves and needs social interaction with peers (or a parent, grandparent, or really anyone with a pulse).
Both of my kids are so much happier when they can have interaction with friends (whose parents I know have been taking the pandemic seriously). They play outside or masked inside.
I’ve also looked for other experiences and opportunities for them to have some safe fun this past year – masked visits to farms and the aquarium, horseback riding lessons, a few trips to the beach, hikes on the Eno River, etc. My son did a week of overnight camp this summer, and my daughter had several day camps. I was very impressed with how seriously their camps were taking COVID precautions.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about safe ways for them to have fun because that’s a lot more therapeutic for me than reading the news (which I still do). I also think there’s something to be said for keeping kids active and providing fun opportunities for the benefit of their mental well-being.
I’m by no means a parenting expert – those ideas are just a few that have worked relatively well for me. One other biggie, which is hard for most parents, is to take care of yourself, so that you are better able to take care of your children.
That has been especially difficult this past year and a half, but so important. Going to therapy, taking care of basic needs, having a little fun, all apply to parents also.
My kids are starting back school in less than a week. I’ve bought supplies and I’m waiting on teacher assignment emails. They’ll be back in-person, wearing masks. I’m cautiously optimistic.
I’ll be taking the same approach as I did last school year: using therapy as a tool, having a reliable routine, not stressing too hard on academics, giving them some outlets for fun, and trying hard to take care of myself also.