By Molly Schiffer, LCPC, Center for OCD and Anxiety, Sheppard Pratt

As a kid, one of my favorite things about going back to school was the back-to-school shopping. Aisles filled with brightly colored notebooks, folders, and backpacks, shiny and new. The idea of “back to school” did not just signal a new school year, it also signaled a new year, regardless of whether you had kids in school or not.

But COVID-19 has altered our return to school. Even though TV commercials are still advertising flashy back-to-school sales, the feeling of excitement and enthusiasm about the new school year has been replaced for many with a feeling of trepidation and uncertainty. How do we move forward with this school year when so many questions remain unanswered? 

As a parent with children returning to school, you might be feeling a combination of dread, anxiety, and frustration with your new role as both teacher and school monitor. Parents working from home may feel overwhelmed by the prospect of working and simultaneously managing their child’s coursework.

You may have a child or adolescent who utilizes mental health resources or specialized instruction who will now miss out on these vital services. This is especially true if you are a LGBTQ+ teen who relies on the community support provided by LGBTQ+ clubs, counseling, and alliances. Or you might be a LGBQT+ teen quarantined with family members who do not accept you, and school was a place where you felt supported.

As a teacher you may feel tremendous pressure and responsibility to provide the same quality education virtually that you formerly provided in person. It may feel like an overwhelming responsibility to provide rigorous coursework in this format, without any real training or preparation.

Perhaps the new school year doesn’t affect you directly. Still, you might be worried about the safety of family and friends. You may be struggling with feelings of isolation and loneliness due to social distancing and self-quarantining. All of our lives have been interrupted in one way or another and it is perfectly acceptable to acknowledge this fact.

When working with clients, I frequently discuss the concept of acceptance. Acceptance does not mean you are okay with the situation or that the situation isn’t extraordinarily stressful. Acceptance is a mindful acknowledgement of what is objectively happening without downplaying or exaggerating it. Allowing ourselves to grieve over what has been lost as a result of the pandemic is part of the moving forward process. 

From a place of acceptance, we can stop comparing the current atmosphere to what it used to be like and look for peace and contentment in what is happening now. Here are a few strategies that may help:

Establish a routine in your home: If you have kids going to school virtually, it may be helpful to create a workspace in your home that is designated for school. Let your kids pick out a few things to brighten and personalize their space. Set up boundaries and expectations for what the day will look like. If you are a parent working from home, have an open conversation with your kids about the potential challenges that could come up and create some ground rules.

Recognize mental tricks: Be on the lookout for catastrophizing and all-or-nothing thinking. These can manifest as thoughts like: What if I fail the children I teach and they fall behind in school? What if my kids have social delays which impact their future relationships? What if my LGBTQ+ teenager falls into a deep depression due to the lack of social support? Recognizing that these are worst case scenarios rather than predictions about the future can help reduce anxiety and help set realistic expectations moving forward.

Normalize thoughts and feelings: It is easy to get hijacked by thoughts and feelings. Remember feelings are not facts, and thoughts are not messages. Talking about feelings of sadness, disappointment and anxiety can help normalize these experiences and reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Identify available resources: Be sure to investigate what resources are available virtually. LGBTQ+ teens can access community support through Gay Straight Alliances (GSA) where they can participate in virtual events, conferences, and group conversation via social media. These resources may be invaluable, especially to those who may not feel supported at home.

Whatever “back to school” looks like to you, you should extend grace and compassion to yourself and others. Allowing yourself and others to make mistakes and be imperfect can go a long way in preserving mental health. Together we will get to the other side of this pandemic. For now, forego the folders and pencils, and instead invest in a fancy set of earbuds to meet your online learning or working needs. It’s okay. We’ve got this.