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Coping with Back-to-School Stress

By: Denaye Barahona

My youngest starts kindergarten this year, and it wasn't supposed to look like this.

As a child of the 1990s, I have a considerable amount of nostalgia for the back-to-school season. But as a parent in a pandemic, this season represents something entirely different: uncertainty, fear, and stress. 

I have fond memories of Augusts in my small Ohio hometown. I rushed to lists posted on the school's front door to see my classmates and discover who our new teacher would be. I loved to pick out the colorful folders, new pencils, and fresh notebooks. 

In my childhood, the beginning of a school year represented a fresh start, renewed friendships, and endless possibilities. Yet this year, our children may not have that picture-perfect first day of school—at least not in the way we dreamed it to be for them. As I process this journey in my own family, I'm reminded of the relevant quote, "life doesn't have to be perfect to be wonderful." 

These three tips will help you to reduce stress and start the school year off right this year: 

  • Acknowledge the losses. Collectively as parents, we are grieving, and we need to talk about it. Our families have experienced losses, both big and small. This is especially true when it comes to our children's education. We are mourning lost learning time, lost opportunities, and a loss of normalcy in the classroom. As a mother of a child who is hard of hearing, I grieve every day that I send him into a school filled with masks where he can't read lips and human emotion in facial expressions. 

  • You don't have to pretend that everything is alright. In these turbulent times, we need to find safe spaces to share and process the losses we have experienced during the pandemic. It's okay not to be okay. How can we take the first step in acknowledging and processing the losses that we have experienced?

     


  • Look for growth. After we acknowledge the losses we have experienced, we can start to look for growth. The pandemic has tested us in more than we know. Both parents and children have been pushed to grow and develop resilience in ways they may not have otherwise experienced. 
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    As parents, we want to protect our children from both physical and emotional pain. My daughter had both her fourth and fifth birthday parties cancelled. She was sad and disappointed, yet no matter how much I wanted to fix those hard feelings, I couldn't. As our children sit with us in these uncertain times, they have developed flexibility and grit that will stay with them for a lifetime. They have demonstrated incredible amounts of adaptability and strength. Can we pause to see this silver lining? 

     


  • Recognize what we can control. When it comes to back-to-school stress, we won't be able to prevent it all. There will be losses but there will also be growth. As parents, we can stay focused on aspects of our children's education that we can control. We can communicate with teachers and advocate to school personnel to ensure our children's educational needs are being met. When they are home, we can provide them with a balanced diet to give them the energy and health to thrive in a world where their health may be at-risk. 
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    Perhaps most importantly, we can provide a warm and nurturing place for them to land at the end of each day. It's more important than ever that we take time to connect and process after school. This parent-child connection will support their body and soul to start each day with renewed energy. Can you get down on their level, offer a warm smile, and make eye contact each day? 


    One of the greatest lessons that the pandemic has given us is the experience of sitting with uncertainty. Like most things in the past 18 months, we won't be able to plan or anticipate exactly what this year will look like—and that feels scary. But in spite of the unpredictability, we will see tremendous growth as well. Remember, life doesn't have to be perfect to be wonderful.

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