Returning to School: A Parent’s Sweet Dream Turned Nightmare

By Melissa Goldstein, LPC, NCC

Once upon a time, in a land not too, too far away, there lived parents with children eagerly awaiting a slight drop in temperature and the turning of the leaves, signaling the fading of summer and ushering in the fall.  This was a time of joy and festivity in all the land.  Parents eagerly awaited the return of formalized education. A schedule. A Bus.  Lunches prepared by someone else.  Consistency! The School Year.  Children chirped with enthusiasm.  What would they wear the first day of school? Who would be in their homeroom?  Would they like their teachers? How would they navigate the cafeteria the first day? Where would they sit? 

As the final days of summer would drift away, parents shepherded their kids to Target and Walmart.  Shelves of binders, trapper keepers, Lisa Frank journals, pens and colored pencils stocked the shelves. A child’s greatest joy of shuffling through the rows of goodies for a new backpack, one that could properly define and encompass who they were as individuals. Maybe a key chain or two? And the clothes, by GOLLY, the clothes! The PERFECT outfit to announce, “I am ready, check me out.”

But alas, this story is a fairy tale about what life in Fall of 2019.  This Fall will be slightly different and “slightly” is an understatement.  We are now in a new era, when preparing for the school year seems impossible.  If you are still holding on to the fairy tale above, I am guessing moving forward seems next to impossible. How can we prepare for something that seems ever changing?  Great question.  DBT is here to help.

Step 1:  We have to Radically Accept that COVID is here and we have little to no control over the course of this Pandemic and what the schools will, ultimately, decide.  Yes, we can express our opinions and talk to the school boards. We can write to our local politicians and complete surveys.  We can attend townhalls (wearing mask) and protest on the street (while socially distancing, of course). Ultimately, however, we will have to go with the flow.  We can scream and shout and say how unfair it is. We can point to statistics supporting our cause. We can post angry messages on Facebook.  We can complain (aggressively) to our friends and we can cry. We can cry at the state of the world and our predicaments — but in the end, we have to accept (radically) that it is what it is.  The more we cry, scream and shout, the more we suffer. If we can accept the situation, (not necessarily agree, or be happy about it), we can move forward. We can make a plan, problem solve, and more importantly, we can survive without additional pain suffering. 

Step 2: Start problem solving.  What can we do about it? What resources do you have? Who is in your village? Is there a middle path to compromise with your partners, parents, friends, or family?  Can you talk to your employer?  Let’s figure out solutions.  Not perfect solutions. Not even great solutions. Good enough will suffice.  Stop judging yourself and stop judging others.  We all need to come up with solutions that work best for our own families.  Try practicing some loving kindness for yourself and your neighbors.  We are all making difficult choices and there is no correct answer.  If you start feeling stuck and hopeless, take a break. STOP. Take a step back. Observe your feelings, thoughts, and emotions and proceed mindfully.  When we feel flustered, hopeless and full of anxious thoughts, we need to Check the Facts and get out of our emotional mind.  Take a break and come back to it and try again. Remember- everyone is going through similar scenarios- reach out and get ideas.  You are not alone. 

Step 3: Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Learn to ride the waves of anxiety and fear knowing that they do not last forever.  Look at this as an opportunity to adapt and practice skills.  Use distress tolerance skills: get some exercise, breathe deeply, or meditate. Find space to self soothe. Take care of yourself. Make sure you are sleeping and eating well to build up your resiliency to the ever-changing world. What are you doing to treat yourself?

Step 4: Create a new normal.  This is hard.  Really hard.  Let’s try to make it easier on ourselves.  If your kids are staying at home: create a routine. Start waking up at a consistent time.  Get dressed (like, really dressed).  Get your child involved in preparing their outfits and food. Have breakfast, snacks, and lunches prepared.  Create a “school” at home (and an “office” for yourself for that matter).  Make both sanctuaries to escape, whether it’s in the closet of a room, or a small corner.  Put up some sheets and create a space where you can start to separate your ‘Home’ from ‘School/Work’ life.  Post a schedule on the wall. Go back to school shopping.  You need it. I don’t care if it’s to get the cutest sweatpants of your life. Go. Wear a mask.

If your kids are headed back to school: Review the safety precautions with them, get them prepared, get them the mask they want, and remind those germ balls to wash their hands. Have a routine for when they return home at the end of the day to keep the rest of the household sanitized and safe.

Step 5: Talk to your kids and listen.  What are their fears? What are their concerns? What do they want? How can we make this work for them?  Parents’ tend to do any and everything for their children. What can your kids do for themselves? How can they be a part of the problem solving and solution?  Set some goals. What do they want for the school year? What do you want? 

Step 6:  Check yourself, before you wreck yourself.  This doesn’t have to be the worst.  It could be the best. It could just be okay. Pay attention to your attitude and what you are telling yourself and also what messages you are sending to your kids.  Is this, in fact, a nightmare, or, could it be a new adventure full of challenges, daring battles, and huge victories?  Just because the fairy tale doesn’t start off with rainbows and sunshine, doesn’t mean it won’t end that way. 

Lastly, remember change is the only constant.  This won’t last forever and, in the end, we will come out stronger, more flexible, and more resilient than before. It’s okay to not be okay and to have a bad day, or more.  Sometimes we all need to take a brief vacation from school (and work.  Make sure you are coming back to it and taking care of yourself. 

If you notice that you or your kids are having more bad days than good, reach out. Get some support and talk to a professional if needed.  We are all in this together, so let’s shoot for a fairy tale ending and try and get a little closer to the happily ever after.