Taking Charge of Back to School Stress 2021: Parents, Compassionately, Start with Your Anxiety First

As families across the country prepare for a new school year start, along with the usual back to school worries, the delta variant has shaken our confidence and the hopes we held high just a few short weeks ago for a more “normal” year. Multiplying families’ fears are the stories of back-to-school transitions already interrupted by COVID outbreaks in classrooms. There is no question—we are yet again facing another year like no other.

It’s impossible to quantify or even begin to describe the emotional toll of the past year and a half—we don’t have the words—and frankly, in the trenches anew, we don’t even have time. For parents, there’s no time to think about whether to get spiral notebooks or three-ring binders, instead it’s worries about COVID, vaccines, masks, mask wars, and the 3:00 am pit in your stomach wondering whether by sending your child to school you are doing the right thing for their safety and well-being.

Your worries are totally understandable. And your child’s worries—some kids flat out refusing to go back to school this year—they are understandable too. These fears are not “neurotic,” “over the top,” “being dramatic,” or “overprotective.” No place for name-calling; we are in a crisis; we are all doing our best.

And as understandable as worry is, we can tell by our racing hearts that it’s simply not the state where we get our best work done, or any work done, at all. It’s the spin cycle, it gets us nowhere. You can’t think clearly about the immediate needs in front of you when your mind is miles away gripped by visions of worst-case scenarios. In these troubling times, we may find ourselves unawares —or more to the point, lose ourselves unawares– in worry as our default mode, but we must keep finding ourselves, so that we can do the clear thinking and planning we need.

We are wired to worry—equipped with a primitive defense system programmed to stop at nothing, to rehearse and re-rehearse in our minds every worst-case scenario imaginable in order to keep us safe. Worry is understandable, but it is not helpful. It is good for fight or flight, not the fine print of CDC guidelines, considering the breathability and fit of masks, proper social distancing etc. So while starting to worry is inevitable, engaging in the worry conversation in your mind isn’t the way to protect your child, it in fact can get in the way of more powerful problem solving. Not to mention that by spinning in catastrophic scenarios, we will actually feel more scared, not safer. In short: we can’t preempt those first anxious thoughts, but we can decide how long to stay there and where to go next. That is what we need to work on with ourselves and teach those skills to our kids.

If your kids are scared, how can you reassure them if your fears aren’t so different?

The fact is—you can’t and that’s OK, forget about reassuring as a first step, you won’t be believable or effective or comforting till you look at your own fears and get a little quiet and honest with the worry voice in your own head. Even if it’s just a few seconds. Our kids keep us honest, and never is it more true or poignant than in situations where the news is hard. If we address our own fears by fact-checking and trusting in good-enough solutions, though, kids will follow our lead. Because the fact is, that even when there is fear and uncertainty there are ways to be safe. Communicate to kids how to be responsible in managing a complex situation by taking steps to protect everyone and, yes, to take some risks but reasonable ones.

When we take the steps to see anxiety for what it is—understandable but not helpful, we can see that in fact, many things are in our control, we can pivot and put our focus there instead of looping back into our fears. By taming fear we tap into our ability to act and solve problems. Here are the steps, the way to go from anxiety to action:

Step One: Bring Empathy to the Moment: You have been parenting in the trenches, starting and stopping, worrying and navigating, in the most extraordinary and unprecedented times. It’s exhausting and open-ended. Have compassion for yourself, appreciating how well you’ve faced these trials.

With kids, be generous with your empathy and understanding. Your own anxiety may spike when your child says they’re not going to school, and if you respond with a hard-line “Oh yes you are!”, they will keep telling you louder and louder how they’re feeling until you acknowledge what they’re saying. Instead, be a good listener, help your child feel heard—then ask if you can help them think through their fears. Make certain to address their fears rather than risk introducing worry content that wasn’t already on their mind. Reinforce that you are on their side and there to help and that you’re going to work it through together.

Step Two: Relabel Your Fears Accurately: It’s Your Worry Brain When you hear “What if’s” and “Oh nos!” in your mind, or out loud, don’t just give them authority, understand that they are understandable but not helpful responses to uncertainty and risk.

With kids: help kids learn the sounds of worry—does that sound like worry to you? Remember, worry is an alarm, but we have to turn it off so we can think clearly about what we need to do—and whether we actually need to do anything right now.

Step Three: Rethink and Fact Check Your Fears Write down your fears or say them out loud, then edit them for accuracy. If something is really a feeling not a fact like, “I’m a bad parent if I send (or don’t send) my child to school,” insert the feeling words: I feel like a bad parent, I feel like I’ll make a mistake, I’m having a lot of worry thoughts about doing the wrong thing and putting my child in danger.” Using these edits helps to downgrade the authority of the worries and hear them as emotions. After you do your edits, ask yourself what is likely to happen rather than what you’re afraid will happen.

With kids: Ask them “What are the things on your worry list?”, “What is worry telling you?” or “What are the worries on your mind?” Have them use a red pen to edit and correct the fears. For example if they say, “If I go to school I’m going to get sick,” they can correct that —“I’m having the worry thought that if I go to school, I’ll get sick, but I know that I am doing what I need to do to protect myself and school is doing what they need too to protect me.”

Step Four: Connect with Your Body, Calmly Is it a few deep breaths, is it dropping everything and walking the dog? Reaching for the sky and letting your arms drop a couple times? Giving yourself a bear hug if no one is around to help you with that? Worry makes your body buzz with adrenaline—it can make you feel like something is really happening (wrongly) even when it’s just something that you’re picturing in your mind. A good exhale or physical connection grounds you back to the present where nothing is happening, it helps you slow down so you can get perspective and be ready to make good choices.

With kids: help your child find their “go to” physical re-set—a big exhale blowing out birthday candles, a bear hug, a “robot-ragdoll” game where they make their body stiff then relaxed, or even some jumping jacks or dancing to “wring” out the adrenaline.

Step Five: Mobilize and Take Action Wherever You Can Even if there is a reason to be scared, even if the face of real potential threats—we can be prepared. The way to do this? Ask yourself: What part of the situation in front of you can you control? Write down the things you can do if you were taking care of things- what would it look like? Whether that’s educating yourself to fill in the blanks about most effective masks for your child, or talking to the school counselor.

With kids you can ask: “What part can you control, or not? What part feels hard vs what parts feel easier? How do you think the situation will actually turn out, vs what is your fear telling you (the worst things) about the situation? Are there things that you or someone else can do that would help?” Have your student role-play asking for help in those times when they may not feel comfortable.

Parents and kids should feel free to use whichever steps are most helpful, you don’t have to use them all. If you get picked up in a worry hijack yourself—just tell your child, “worry is really bugging me right now, but I’m going to figure this out.” They’ll learn from your example.

In these most challenging times, we must come together for the common good—showing children how we can respond effectively to the fears in our own mind, take actions to mitigate the risks we face, and keep the doors open to connection, discovery and growth. Wishing all a safe school year and beyond.

© 2021 Tamar Chansky, Ph.D. An abridged version was published on Psychology Today. Please feel free to share with your communities and lots more ideas on taking charge of worry and anxiety on my website.

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