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Addressing Back-to-School Anxiety during a Pandemic

Son seeks comfort from his mother during a difficult moment. Image: Jordan Whitt

Perhaps more than any other summer, we’ve enjoyed the sweet reprieve from a frenzied school routine. But now, it’s August, which means it’s time to shop for school supplies and to reset sleep schedules. It’s also time to find out how much our kids have grown since June and replace their floods with the correct sized pants. 

Our effort to summon energy for a new school year isn’t the only thing ramping up in the waning light of summer bliss. As the delta variant of the coronavirus makes its way into communities across the United States, anxiety for the fall is spiking, too. Families that had hoped last year’s pandemic protocols could be thrown away with the broken nubs of crayons are being faced with a return to the same worry and debate that marked last school year.

It’s beginning to take a toll on our mental health. And if you think you’ve got it bad as parents, imagine what’s going on with our kids.

Back-to-School Anxiety Meets Pandemic Panic

“Going back to school is a perfect storm of two really hard situations,” said Dr. Emily L. Bilek, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Michigan. “Lots of kids struggle with coming back to school during a typical year. There’s also been an increase in anxiety and stress for youth over the past 18 months” Bliek added. 

In her clinical practice, Dr. Bilek’s wait list has grown longer and longer since November of last year, which was about the time the novelty of our situation wore off and reality set in.

The combination of normal, back-to-school stress and the stress of the past 18 months “is a recipe for increased anxiety,” said Dr. Bilek. “Anyone seeing anxiety in their kids or themselves should recognize that it is normal and to be expected.”

How to Help Your Child Cope with Anxiety

Image: Jackson Simmer

The world is filled with buckets of uncertainty these days. All of us are dealing with varying degrees of loss from the past 18 months, from lost celebrations (like proms and graduation) to lost jobs, lost health, the loss of loved ones, and more. This spring, many of us began to hope for a return to normalcy. Now, those hopes may feel diminished or extinguished, leaving us angry, sad, anxious, and tired… maybe all at once.

“Anxiety likes to breed on uncertainty,” Dr. Bilek said. “One way to help ourselves and our kids cope is how we relate to uncertainty.”

When I’m uncertain, my impulse is to hunt for more information. Perhaps just one more article or video will provide the certainty I need. Seeking out reliable information is a good idea and might help, but ironically, said Dr. Bilek, “when we’re just seeking information to try to feed the need for certainty, it can leave us feeling worse.”

Our tendency as parents is to rush in and try to fix whatever is bothering our child. We just want them to be happy! But when we leapfrog over how our children are feeling and rush into problem solving mode, it can exasperate our children. 

Why? Because it invalidates their feelings. 

When there’s no way to fix the situation (like the one we’re in right now), there are additional steps that can help mitigate it. 

“Sometimes, just identifying the feeling can honor it,” Dr. Bilek shared. “Being with a person, trying to help them identify what they are actually feeling, validating that experience, letting them know it’s okay to feel that way… all of that is connecting with that person instead of trying to fix something that isn’t fixable.”

The Spiritual Practice of Lament

During this season, many of us are saying, “this isn’t the way I thought it would be.” The psalmists in the Bible and Job, the king of suffering, model a posture for coping with uncertainty and anxiety. It’s called lament. They are not shy about expressing the fear, anguish, pain, grief, anger, and worry that is a result of their awful circumstances. They tell their friends and God what’s happening to them and how it’s making them feel. With their circumstances and feelings out on the table, they are able to move, inch by inch, forward, instead of spiraling in their emotions. 

When we give words to both what is happening to us and how it’s making us feel, it lays the groundwork for the next small step forward.

“This order is important: if problem solving comes before validating how the child feels, you can imagine how it’s going to go,” Dr. Bilek said. “I need someone to match this feeling first, I need to know that someone sees me and I’m not alone in this feeling.” 

This might also be the first time your child is feeling this way, which is scary in and of itself. When a parent acknowledges those feelings and gives a name to what that child is feeling, they give them a way to identify that feeling for themselves in the future.

And knowing what you’re feeling is a step toward knowing how to cope with what you’re feeling.

Anxiety Is Normal, and You Can Seek Help

Image: Tyler Wilcox

How do you know if you or your child could use some additional help to cope with their anxiety?

Dr. Bilek says to look at how those normal and appropriate human responses (e.g. sadness, anger, anxiety, depression, etc.) are affecting everyday life. Are these emotions getting in the way of daily activities? Anxiety might make us avoid activities and responsibilities, keeping us from doing the things we want or need to do.

As school begins, Dr. Bilek said, it’s important to watch for changes in your child’s behavior, like missing school when it’s time to go back. When anxiety impairs or interferes with activities in a child’s daily life, it might be time to seek out a counselor or therapist to help a child learn how to cope with anxiety better. 

The treatment of choice for youth anxiety is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy with a psychotherapist. This therapy is sometimes combined with medication to help a child through a rough season. If you think your child could benefit from professional help, access the Association for Clinical Behavioral Therapist directory or the Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s directory of licensed therapists.

Dealing with Parental Pandemic Panic and Anxiety

Okay, Dr. Bilek, that’s great and all, but what about my anxiety and panic about masking, vaccinating, school boards, backpacks, packed lunches, remote learning, quarantining, and surviving another school year of diminished hope and disappointment? How do I know if I’m making the right decisions for my child?

“No one is giving parents enough credit, especially the ones of children who are not vaccinated yet,” Dr. Bilek shared. Every parent is trying to balance their child’s physical health and emotional and educational wellbeing, and “no one can make that decision for your child except for the parent.” 

“There are resources available for you to make an informed decision about the physical health of your child. There will still be uncertainty. It’s okay to make a decision and still feel scared about it,” Dr. Bilek said. 

“People mistake treatment and advice from anxiety experts as a way to get over their anxiety or get rid of it,” said Dr. Bilek. “Actually, I’m going to help you learn how to live alongside your anxiety, because most of the amazing and worthwhile things in life are going to come along with a side of anxiety. The things that are most fulfilling and that align with our values are also a little bit scary.”

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