Back-to-School Mental Health Check-In: August 2021

Child Therapist and School Counselor Danielle Bocchino joined Park Slope Parents for a conversation about going back to school this September, where she shared advice for parents on managing their emotions and helping kids transition smoothly back into school.

 

Read on for key takeaways—and if you’re a parent who’s not yet a member of PSP, join us today to tap into the support of a compassionate community.

 

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Managing emotions for parents

 

Fake it ’til you make it. This is a crazy time, but help your child by keeping your negative emotions from transferring onto them. If you’re within earshot of your children, they can hear you telling other adults about your fears and worries. Talk about why they should wear masks and try to make it fun for them rather than scaring them into thinking that if it slips down they can get “really sick.” (We have an article on convincing kids to wear their masks, plus some great mask recs.) Kids who are new to school need to feel that their parents are making good choices. If you have young children, save your kids from those grown-up feelings. It’s your job to be their parent and make decisions for them. Don’t second-guess those choices and decisions in front of them. 

 

It’s normal to not want to see your kid struggling. Parents often go right to asking, “how do I fix things for my child?” With all the uncertainty surrounding Covid and schooling right now, it’s difficult to have this mindset because there are no easy fixes. It’s more effective to find tools you can utilize to calm yourself and help both yourself and your child gain a sense of control.

 

Reframe your conversations with your child. Think about a talk you need to have with them and mentally reframe how you want to approach it. Rather than being “the fixer,” focus on being “the listener.” Kids just need to know that you’re there for them, and when you show curiosity and empathy—even when you’re not presenting concrete action steps to “resolve the problem”—you’ll be surprised how much they’ll share with you. Use open ended questions, or questions that can be probed, like, “If you could describe your emotion as a weather term, such as stormy or sunny or rainy or rainbows, what would you say is how you feel?”

 

Set aside time to just “be.” If you’re caught in a cycle of stress and worry, that can not only be exhausting, but it can also affect your child when they see you struggling. Combat this by taking even fifteen minutes out of your day to make a pact with yourself that you’ll take a break from worrying, take a breath, and be mindful. You may go back to stressing when that fifteen minutes is over, but getting even a brief reprieve can be a huge help. However, if your worry is all consuming and there are things that you just can’t do about it, think about worrying for a certain amount of time and then deciding to put that worry on a shelf since for things are out of your control. PsychCentral has an article on “How to Worry More Effectively.” There’s also a great exercise that you can do to help you decide what you can and can’t control to help you focus on actionable things in your life.

Check out the Locus of Control (screenshot below), an exercise that can help lessen anxiety in less than ten minutes.

 

 

Set aside time to work through your triggers. You might become particularly stressed out by a lack of information from your school, or by receiving conflicting information, or by any number of other factors. Take time when you’re away from your child(ren) to think through what’s most difficult for you and establish ways that you can handle it when it does arise so that you’re better prepared to model calm and collectedness in front of your child.

 

Trust yourself and go with your gut. When you make a decision, either about keeping your child home or sending your child back to school, believe in yourself and the fact that you did the right thing. If you did the right research, chose the right school, checked out the right resources, and are doing the right thing for your child and your family, relax into the decision. If you feel your trust in these facts slipping—for instance, if you’re feeling truly uncomfortable with the Covid precautions (or lack of them) that a school facility has put in place—then trust yourself on that too. Everyone has different levels of risk tolerance and aversion, so if you don’t feel right about dropping your child off at the school, then trust your decision to pull them out.

 

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Managing transitions for kids

 

Expect kids to have difficulties right now. Even in the best of times, transitioning to school can be hard, so expect bumps in the road. Most kids have been cooped up without a lot of social interaction in the past year and a half, so going back to school will be an adjustment for them. Their battery may be depleted right now, and they may act out in anger, difficulty sleeping, lack of focus, defiance, or negativity. See this article (screenshot below) about how anxiety can show up as something else. As a dear friend once told me, “change is stressful; even positive change.” 

 

 

Find small ways to help kids feel more in control. One easy step is to create a visual schedule or calendar—something tangible for kids to hold on to and know what’s in store for them on any given day. This also helps you because when your child has questions about their schedule, you can put control back in their hands and take a task off of your plate by directing them back to their schedule.

 

Kids Unlimited has a great sample template:

 

 

Decide what’s non-negotiable. Things are challenging right now, but you still need to hold your child accountable for regular standards of behavior. It’s best for them, best for you, and best for your family.  If they’re displaying difficult behaviors or an unwillingness to participate in necessary tasks like homework or attending school, then try to determine what’s at the root of those behaviors. Ask them: “What’s something you’re feeling often lately? What are you thinking about?” The “headaches and stomachaches” that are keeping your child from doing what they need to do may well be caused by anxiety manifesting physically, so put yourself into curiosity mode to find out what’s really going on. For younger children, a feelings chart like this one (screenshot below) can help them identify the emotions they’re not yet ready to put into words.

 

 

Give kids space to express and process. Kids may need some space right now to let out their feelings, whether that means shouting it out or taking some time alone. It helps to give kids some control over how they deal with their emotions—for example, consider creating a “calming corner” for them to take a time-out when emotions are running high. Give them agency to determine what goes in the calming corner, when they go there, and how long they’ll stay. This helps them feel like their voice is being heard.

 

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One great idea for a “calming corner” is a homemade glitter jar (here are instructions on how to make it happen). You can work together with your child to create the globe, and when they’re feeling stressed out, they can focus on mindfulness by swirling it and watching it settle.

 

Establish routines to ease transitions. If your child (or you!) is experiencing separation anxiety, it can help to build a routine like a special handshake for the moment when you have to pull the band-aid off and say goodbye for the day. Reading books like The Invisible String and The Kissing Hand (video here) are great ways to help kids ease separation anxiety. Park Slope Parents has more advice for separation anxiety as well as a Transitions Guide that members can access for free and non-members can access for a small fee.

 

Park Slope Parents is making it easy for members to connect with other families going to the same 3K, Preschool, UPK, and Kindergarten through contact forms for playdates before school starts. Visit your baby/kid group to learn more.

 

How do I know whether my child is experiencing something clinical and when they’re just going through normal developmental changes? The key things to watch are duration, frequency, and intensity—how often is your child having tantrums, how serious are they, and how long do they last? Also consider how much your child’s difficult emotions are affecting their daily activities, norms, and rituals. Crucial areas to watch are sleeping, eating, loss of interest in activities, and isolating behaviors. If you’re thinking that your child may need professional support, teachers and school counselors are a great place to start. They tend to provide short-term rather than long-term help, but they—along with your school’s faculty and director—are available to help you evaluate your situation and recommend next steps.

 

 

Resources shared by Danielle

 

- Child Mind Institute article: What to Do (and Not Do) When Children Are Anxious

- Mindfulness for Teens: Powerful skills to help you handle stress one moment at a time.

- Mindful Schools has created ten free mindfulness classes for kids.

- Separation Anxiety article: Stony Brook Medicine's child and adolescent

psychologists explain potential challenges that the pandemic may present.

- Care for Coronavirus Anxiety: Managing anxiety and your mental health in a

global climate of uncertainty.

- Mind Yeti: A library of research-based guided mindfulness sessions that help kids and

their adults calm their minds.

- Body Scan for Kids by Mindful: An 11-minute body scan for children to help

create calmness.

- Smiling Mind: This app provides daily guided mindfulness and meditation videos;

digital care packs available during pandemic.

 

 

Further reading and resources

 

- The Invisible String and The Kissing Hand (video here) are great kids’ books to ease separation anxiety.

- The Locus of Control is an exercise that can help lessen anxiety in less than ten minutes.

- Hunt, Gather, Parent by Michaeleen Doucleff spells out how to make chores and responsibilities (i.e., a sense of control) part of kids’ daily routine.

- A feelings chart like this one can help kids identify the emotions they’re not yet ready to put into words.

 

 

Help for transitions, schooling decisions, and working parents from PSP

 

- Tips for the First Day of School - Are You More Nervous than Your Child?

- The Park Slope Parents Guide to Transitions (free for members, $15 for non-members)

- PSP Decision-Making During COVID, for Parents of Babies & Toddlers

- Managing Transition, Back-To-School During Covid: A PSP Coping Webinar

- Returning to Childcare & Learning: Lessons from Vivvi and the PSP Community

- Preparing for daycare and preschool in the time of coronavirus 

- Working Mother Topics

Work-Life Balance Tips