How Parents Can Help Kids (And Themselves) Cope With This School Year

Aug 16, 2020

To say this school year is full of uncertainty for students and parents alike – When will we start? How will we start? What else can we expect to not enjoy? – is an understatement.

I should know – I am one of those stressed out parents.

I know I am not alone. I see the worry in the faces of my fellow parent friends concerned their child will fall behind. I hear the hint of anger in the voice of a mom at a recent Cincinnati Public Schools board meeting after the district switched from a blended learning model to going fully remote for the first five weeks of school. She's a nurse with a child with disabilities who is too old for daycare. What are her childcare options?

Such stress is "definitely something I've been seeing more and more of in my clients as school starts to approach," says Ursula Robinson, LPCCS, a counselor at A Better You Counseling with offices in Springdale and Hamilton.

But, she says, it's important to remember that you are not alone. "We're not used to being both a teacher and a parent," she says. "This is new for everybody."

Here are a few strategies that can help:

For Kids

Kids of all ages are reacting to the pandemic in their own ways, and the occasional outburst is normal, says Dr. Kathy Sorger, a pediatrician in Hyde Park. However, any lasting behavioral change should be a red flag.

"If they're typically outgoing and social and laugh a lot and engage with the family on a regular basis and now they're withdrawing – they're maybe not eating with the family; they're spending more time in their room," she explains. "Also, some personality change, like a younger child having more temper tantrums, acting out; an older child having more outbursts, fighting with friends, fighting with family. These may all be signs that they're feeling stressed."

Changes in sleep and eating patterns could also be early indicators that a child is not tolerating the stress of a situation, she adds.

The good news is there is a free-of-charge fix.

"Part of the problem right now is routine," Sorger says. "When we look back at March and some of the stuff that was going on early on, it was really loss of routine that was causing stress. Kids like consistency, they like to know what is going to happen day to day and what they're going to do the following day."

To get back on track, she advises making sure kids – "especially teenagers" – are not staying up too late; wake up at a reasonable hour; and have time away from social media and other screens for physical activity.

"Structure your day so you've got meal time, activity time, creativity time and school time. Have a routine, stick with it and put as much of the family on the same routine as you can."

Sorger believes older kids are particularly vulnerable during this time.

"The younger kids, once you explain to them what they need to do they do it, and they seem to accept it," she says. "The older kids, I think, are struggling a bit more because they're on social media, they're learning from multiple sources, they're talking to their friends – and that is tricky because they are preparing themselves rather than you controlling the narrative."

Now more than ever, it's important to check in with your older children. "Don't just say, 'Hey how are you doing?' You want to have a pointed question – 'How do you feel about having lunch every day in your classroom?' If you ask them a question you should get some sense about how they're feeling and you can help from there," she says.

And, she adds, pick a time when you're ready to listen.

"You don't want to be on the phone or on the computer because that makes you not present if they do need to talk," she says.

For Parents

Robinson says many of her clients are just overwhelmed and anxious about the new school year. Are teachers expecting me to homeschool? Am I equipped to do this? are common concerns, she says.

"Practice self-compassion," she advises. "You don't have to have all the answers all the time."

And yes, you may be a mother or a father with work and other obligations, but you also must take time for yourself, she says.

"Exercise, get enough sleep – which I know is hard."

Particularly if the thought of your child falling behind is what keeps you up at night, which Robinson says is a real concern. She advises to stay in contact with your child's teacher as much as you can.

"If you have questions, say 'I don't know if we understand this, can you help me with some of these techniques?' " she says.

Again, having a routine is important. Robinson advises having a structure where you could say to your child, "Once we get through reading, what fun activity do you want to do?"

"Make them part of the decision," she says. "We want our kids to be on track and not fall behind, but it's important to balance it out."

What about those moments where you're the one who feels like throwing a tantrum?

Robinson recommends taking a moment for a few deep breaths, or even some guided imagery.

"So think of a place that brings total serenity, like maybe the beach," she says. "Think about what that would look like; what that would feel like. Take your shoes off and imagine walking in the sand. How is the weather? How is the water? Are there palm trees? Do you hear kids running? Get in contact with all of those senses to help ground you and return to calm."

After that, she says, you'll likely be ready to step back in.