5 Mental Health Tips for Surviving the School Year

mother and son looking at computer

The coronavirus pandemic continues to upend nearly every aspect of our lives. For parents, this includes once reliable school schedules and calendars. As districts consider a potential return to a traditional school environment this fall, continued distance learning, or a hybrid of the two, parents have lots to consider amid this uncertain situation.

What’s safest for my child and the rest of my family? Should we consider homeschooling? How will his or her learning be impacted? How will we cope with what’s decided?

Protecting your mental health as a parent is critical to feeling your best and gracefully guiding your family through what looks to be another unprecedented school year. Here’s how to cope with this dynamic and potentially dangerous situation.

1. Be Open to Change

If the evolving world-health situation has taught us anything, it’s that change is inevitable. New research findings, shelter-in-place orders, and face mask mandates have the potential to upend any education plans made for the upcoming school year. Prepare yourself now for this possibility by thinking through contingency plans.

How will you handle childcare for younger siblings if you need to guide learning from home? What choices can you make as a family to further support your immune systems as flu season approaches and potential COVID-19 exposure increases? Create a doc or write them out on paper to curb any mind-racing thoughts, and then check out these ideas for de-stressing your day.

As always, take steps to protect you and your children, things like social distancing and extra hand-washing, especially if school-based instruction starts — and make sure your children know that these protocols are extremely serious and should not be ignored even if their peers are more slack.

If your district’s commitment to in-person learning leaves you especially uneasy, know that other options exist. Some districts may offer online learning in parallel with in-person instruction. If not, explore independent online schools or other non-traditional options that fit your personal views and comfort level.

2. Set Boundaries

Quarantine restrictions have clearly impacted spousal and family relationships. More time together, with fewer options for healthy outlets like heading to the gym or catching up with a friend over coffee, can mean more opportunities for conflict. One survey found that only 18% of couples were satisfied with the communication in the marriage, even as they were spending additional time together.

At the start of the school year, discuss ways your family can stay connected while still respecting needed time apart. Commit to nightly family dinners, and brainstorm ways you can support each other based on individual needs.

If you’re balancing working from home with distance learning for the kids, keep a calendar with critical meeting times so older children know when to stay out of your Zoom call.

You can also try assigning household chores, setting alone time schedules, and creating personal space for everyone.

3. Invest in Self-Care

Taking care of yourself physically, emotionally, and mentally will help you journey through the uncertainty of this school year. Commit to regular self-care, and don’t let other priorities compete with this valuable time.

Try one of these ideas, and modify as needed for our once-in-a-lifetime COVID-19 situation:

  • Consider doing less
  • Make time for reflection
  • Take a vacation
  • Commit to regular exercise
  • Soak up the sun
  • Practice meditation

Opt for a new online exercise program versus heading to the gym or check out a local winery for an open-air tasting versus booking a long weekend to Napa. Keeping a gratitude journal is a solid way for you and your children to foster a positive perspective during any season, and getting fresh air is bound to boost your mood and curb some of your anxiety about this school year and beyond.

4. Show Empathy

During these polarizing times, every decision seems to cause a further divide among parents, educators, politicians, family members, and neighbors. Chances are, whatever decision your district makes about learning methods for this school year, there’s going to be an unhappy group of people who disagree with the approach. That might include you!

Acknowledge any frustrations and fears you may have about the upcoming school year, and then commit to practicing empathy. Empathy involves trying to understand others’ feelings and perspectives to help guide our actions.

Try to think about how a parent to a medically fragile child may feel about a full-time return to school. Consider how a single parent or teacher may feel about overseeing distance learning while juggling work responsibilities.

Empathy has the power to build connections, regulate your emotions, and help others through trying times — exactly what we need right now. And remember that there simply are no easy answers right now. Consider reaching out to elected officials to ensure that they know that you parents and schools need extra support right now.

5. Practice Patience

Patience is critical for weathering any challenging situation, and that includes the upcoming school year. Having patience with family members, with teachers struggling with technology, and even with researchers fast-tracking a coronavirus vaccine will help you face inevitable disappointments — and come out stronger in the end.

But above all it’s important to:

  • Have patience with your children. Acknowledge that the pandemic has a real impact on children, too. They may not be worried about lost wages or retirement accounts, but their day-to-day routines and social lives have been upended. They’re missing valuable socialization and learning time. Be extra patient if their frustration manifests in challenging behaviors and wait for the right time to have a genuine, heart-to-heart conversation about your child’s feelings.
  • Have patience with yourself. This is an unprecedented time riddled with overwhelming stress. Don’t expect to get the same amount accomplished in a single day or week as you normally would. Extend yourself the same patience that you do for others — your mental health will only benefit.

It’s also important to watch for signs of serious mental health issues like depression or substance abuse both in yourself and in your children. Always reach out to a licensed mental health professional for support if you need it. And don’t let the stigma keep you from getting the help you need — almost everyone needs extra support right now.

Safeguarding your mental health as a parent this school year shows your children the importance of positive mental well-being. Staying mentally tough will help you find glimmers of hope that support a positive outlook and resilience to tackle whatever comes next. It may not be easy, but together we’ll get through this year.

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