Getty Images

The Back-To-School Decision Is The Toughest You’ll Ever Make

I have spent the past 15 years working on and writing about the epidemic of anxiety and depression affecting kids, but the past five months have been like nothing I’ve seen before. The pandemic has brought with it anxiety in adult and child alike — fear of saying goodbye, the pervasive cumulative anxiety that occurs when all of us are trying to make our way through a time of unprecedented uncertainty, and now a new strain of worry brought on by the start of the school year.

Early on, when shelter-in-place rules gave a modicum of structure and clarity to our situations, I talked about the skills for bringing down anxiety like deep breathing, meditation, exercise, and distraction. But as school closures dragged on through summer, with no respite on the horizon, conventional answers to the growing anxiety seemed increasingly futile. Have dinner with your friends at your favorite local restaurant — can’t, it’s closed. Distance learning — no choice, schools were not open. Bring your mom over to watch the grandkids for a few hours – nope, Mom’s in a high-risk group.

Now, we are being asked to make critical decisions about whether or not our kids should go back to school. Here’s the thing about that decision: we are right to be anxious. By all measures, it is premature and we’re being asked to do a job that almost none of us have any experience with. We are not virologists, epidemiologists, district superintendents, or school administrators. Our job as parents has been to raise kids who are motivated, engaged, fair, and kind. That is a full-time job on its own. And most of us have outside work as well. When it comes to our kids, to matters of health and potentially life and death, we want all the information possible, but almost all decisions right now are being made with incomplete data. Asking us not to be anxious about school would take shutting down our brains, which are programmed for predictability, not unpredictability.

These extraordinary times call for extraordinary courage on our part. So we will make the decisions that make the most sense to us based on what we know and what is happening in our community and what our options are. For many parents, this will not be a choice. Here is my advice for handling this moment, according to the options available to you.

If You Are Debating On-Site Learning & Remote Learning

It is completely normal to feel anxiety high anxiety as you face these decisions. The families who actually have a choice about whether or not their kids go back to school face a landscape of uncertainty that stretches on and on. The function of the brain is to predict. This is what allows us to get through our day. We know with certainty what time to drop the kids off at school, what time to show up at work, who in the family likes lasagna and who won’t eat it, and what time our favorite program goes on. We stay away from unpredictability because it makes us anxious. So “tips” on diminishing anxiety in the midst of complete unpredictability can be a tall order.

Acknowledge that this will be one of the toughest decisions you’ll ever have to make. There will be a lack of certainty and distressing second thoughts no matter what you choose, whether it’s a total return to school, all distance learning, or a hybrid model. A hybrid or in-school model risks almost certain modification and change. A camp in Georgia shut down in less than a week when 75% of staff and campers contracted COVID-19. A junior high in Indiana closed down within hours of opening when a student tested positive. This scenario makes further heightened uncertainty, well, certain. And as much as we need certainty, children need it even more. You will be dealing with your child’s sense of uncertainty, your own, and the overflow of other parents’ anxiety. My advice is to ignore those who would shame the decision you come to.

Breathing, meditation, exercise, and distraction work. So put them into your daily life. And, yes, your anxiety has the greatest impact on your child’s level of anxiety. So you can work on the suggestions above together.

Depending on the age of your child, be honest but not alarming. “I’m concerned” is good. “I’m terrified” is not. Mostly, invite your kids to talk about how they’re feeling. Leave it open because many of them will be excited and pleased about returning to school. So start with “tell me about how you’re feeling,” and not “how scared are you to go back to school?” Some role-playing is helpful if you can’t get to school before it starts or if parents are not allowed in. Better yet, ask your child’s school if they can set a date for parents to come with their kids before school opens and sanitize after. This would be especially important for young children or for kids entering a new school.

If You Are Preparing To Send Your Child Back To The School Campus

Seek out resources that can offer support. Some parents have to go back to work and don’t have the resources to hire tutors and form learning pods. The kids and families who are most in need of support will, once again, find the inequality gap in education expanding instead of contracting. This bodes poorly for all of us. Parents in situations like these will face the toughest decisions of all and will need access to services — mental health services, child care services, tutoring services — that have yet to be put in place. Many communities do offer mentor-type programs, some of which may be in-person and most of which are likely to be digital.

Prepare to deal with separation anxiety. How do you deal with the first day at school or back to school when your child basically hasn’t left your side in many months? Some children — teens in particular — are likely to be fine with getting out of the house and back to school. Younger children, however, are apt to experience some form of separation anxiety (and just as likely, their parents will as well). You will not be able to eliminate anxiety, but you can make it manageable.

In clinical practice, when we are dealing with anxiety we take children (and adults) step by step through the very scenarios they are frightened of. This is called progressive desensitization and it works extremely well. Try to break up the anxiety into manageable chunks for your child. Practice. Go out of the house one day. The next day, walk (or drive) in the direction of the school. A few days later, walk up to the school gate. Practice a way to say "goodbye." Be calm and direct and don’t overdo it. Young children may benefit from having a “special” rock or piece of fabric from home that they can touch to be reminded of you. Try to show enthusiasm and interest in the return to school. Make sure your child knows the safety protocols — this gives them something to control.

Remember the 4 S’s. Drs. Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson have a terrific mnemonic for helping us remember what kids (and I would add, adults) need to thrive. The four S’s are to be safe, secure, seen, and soothed.

To keep your child feeling safe, underscore that you are doing everything you can to keep the family healthy. Stay away from frightening language. Limit media exposure. Highlight that your child has some control over safety by wearing masks, keeping distance, and washing hands.

Secure children feel good about themselves. I’ve found it helpful to have parents talk about being a “brave family.” Let your kids know that they’ve handled challenges before, and you are confident that you all will manage. Don’t over-accommodate to anxiety. This only makes kids more unsure, less secure, and more anxious.

To help your kid feel seen, please listen well. Much of the time that we think we’re listening, we’re simply busy formulating a response. Hear your kid out, and invite their input.

And finally, being soothed. Parents almost always know what is soothing for their particular child. For one child that may be a big hug and for another that may be 20 minutes alone in their room listening to music. Every family is different and you have observed your child like no one else has. For young kids, get down to their level and give a hug, ruffle their hair, or sling an arm around their shoulder. You may take suggestions from experts, but no one knows more about your child than you do. Trust your gut!

Make friends with your anxiety. It’s there for a good, protective reason. In therapy with kids, we often work to give the anxiety a name and externalize it — the “name it to tame it” approach. Set aside a bit of time every day and have a chat with your anxiety. Take its temperature: Is it going up or down? Teach your child to do the same. Remember that the goal right now is management, not elimination.

I really do wish I had a silver bullet for managing anxiety as you make these decisions. You won’t be anxiety-free, but you will be more capable of managing yourself and your family and the difficult decisions that lie ahead.

Madeline Levine is a clinical psychologist and the author of Ready or Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World.

You can find more resources at the Child Mind Institute.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.