School Reopening Is a Mess. Here Are 13 Ways to Deal with the Uncertainty

What is my school district's plan? Will kids be safe? Can we handle another season of remote learning? Here, according to 13 therapists, is how to best deal with the myriad emotions.

by Adam Bulger
A woman, in black and white, looks out a window, with a hand on her shoulder

Uncertainty is normal for parents to experience before the start of any school year. We wonder about new teachers, new classmates, new routines, new challenges for us and our kids. Once the school year is underway, however, the feeling often fades. We grow comfortable with the new normal. But this year, with COVID and patchwork school re-openings? This year’s new “normal” — if we can even call it that — fluctuates nearly every day. And many of us are consumed by worry.

With no consensus regarding school reopening plans, parents are left to wonder whether their schools will actually open and, if so, what the arrangement will be. We are swept up in a seemingly endless whirlwind of uncertainty, with thousands of concerns forming the inverted cone around us. Is my child’s school opening full-time? Is it following a hybrid model? Is it safe to send my kid back to school? Are the other parents being smart about COVID safety? What if my kid’s school does remote learning again? Can we handle that and work at the same time? If they go back to school only part-time, can we figure out the schedules? Will my kids fall behind?

The disorganization and unpredictable nature of many school reopening discussions and plans is, to an extent, understandable. But so are the anxiety and frustration many parents feel when conversations change and new memos are given out by school district. These feelings can be crippling — and they can infect our kids, especially given that young children don’t yet understand how to cope with such emotions yet.

So how can parents best handle the uncertainty of school re-openings and life right now? How can we better model behavior for our kids? How do we handle our internal feelings without them affecting our family? For answers, we reached out to 13 therapists and counselors across America for advice on dealing with just that. Their recommendations? Accept that uncertainty is a natural part of life. Express your feelings and find ways for your kids to express — and name — theirs. Put a hard ceiling on your daily worrying. Limit your news intake. And stop beating yourself up. Here’s what they said.

1. Identify Your Feelings and Say Them Out Loud

This ongoing uncertainty is unsettling, which leads to a lot of parental anxiety. The problem with unchecked parental anxiety is that our kids pick up on it and take it with them. Kids often don’t know how to maneuver their own abstract feelings of uncertainty and anxiety. They don’t have the words or concept of how to figure out what and how they feel. So they take it with them. This unchecked anxiety in kids often looks very different compared to adults. It can show up as a ‘bad attitude,’ irritability, tantrums or meltdowns, withdrawal or isolation, or depression.

Without COVID, we would just have our regular worries. COVID adds a whole other level of uncertainty. It’s hard to make plans, to reassure ourselves and our kids, and to move forward because there seems to be no end in sight. The good news is that it will end. Things will get better eventually. We can live our life in a new way. We need to believe this, live it out, and model that for our children. They look to us for comfort and safety.

The best way to handle uncertainty in general is to identify the feelings and say them out loud. That initial awareness will go a long way. Once you identify how you feel, it’s important to show compassion for yourself and to be gentle with yourself and others.

We need to be able to do our own work to be a support to our kids. If we remain stuck, they will too. Have an ongoing conversation about their feelings. Connection helps with feelings of uncertainty and other uncomfortable emotions. Kids may act like they don’t need you, but they do. — Ann-Louise Lockhart, Clinical Psychologist and Parenting Coach, San Antonio, TX

2. Understand That Your Concerns Are Valid. Focus on What’s Within Your Control

First, we must honor the extreme pressure and anxiety that parents are experiencing. Parenting is incredibly hard and emotional under normal circumstances, but we’re now asking parents to do impossible tasks, such as working full-time while homeschooling full-time or having to choose whether or not to send their kids to a school that cannot guarantee safety. These unprecedented challenges are consuming parents. We cannot minimize how difficult this situation is or how valid the anxiety is.

Get support from those around you. Talk to other parents going through the same things. Being able to share and normalize a difficult experience with others provides comfort and peace and a safe space to externalize the anxiety and fear.

Focus on what’s within your control. So much of life feels out of control at the moment. Think about even little things that you can control such as how much water you drink a day, eating regularly, getting enough sleep.

Deep breathing exercises can help manage the physical symptoms of anxiety which in turn can reduce the general experience of anxiety. Try square breathing, where you breathe in four counts, hold for four counts and breathe out for four counts and repeat four times.

Hug your kids, hug your partner. A 10 second hug releases endorphins and also is a form of co-soothing. When you start to feel anxious and uncertain, reach out to your children and hold them tight, feel the weight of their head against your chest and the thump of their heart. Do the same with your partner. — Jessica Small, Family Therapist, Denver, CO

3. Reframe Your Internal Dialogue About Uncertainty

The best approach to uncertainty about change and all of the uncomfortable feelings that come with it is to accept it. While it may feel like up until now, everything has been stable and predictable, life is constantly in flux. Change happens regardless of our thoughts and feelings about it. Practicing acceptance of change and uncertainty alleviates tension and anxiety.

Parents can practice acceptance through simple techniques. These include saying, to themselves or out loud, “I accept this change to school and my feelings of uncertainty. I can’t control it. I don’t have to like it, but I can accept that this year is different and that there will be change.”

Parents can also do this through mindfulness practices. These serve to give the brain a break and help us refocus. These practices can include setting aside one minute in the day to focus solely on breathing, or focusing on the experience of drinking a cup of coffee. They can also work to identify any thoughts that may make uncertainty more stressful and work to gently reframe them. Thoughts like, I can’t do this. This school plan is terrible or The (principal/teachers/school district/other parents) are horrible” are not helpful and lead to increased stress and tension. Some gentle ways to reframe these thoughts include, This is challenging, but I know that I can do this, This is not what I would like or what I would want, but it’s the option I have and I will try my best, or while I may or may not agree with their decisions, everyone is trying their best.

Parents need to have compassion for themselves and others. We’ve never lived through a global pandemic before. We are uncertain. It’s okay. We’re all trying our best. — Dr. Jessica Macdonald, Clinical Psychologist, North Carolina

4. Make Room For Uncertainty By Creating a Game Plan and Backup Plan

There are no risk-free options for children this fall. Families need to balance the risk related to COVID-19 with their child’s need for socialization, services, supervision, and education. Each family is unique and will need to create their own plans, keeping in mind that some form of social time, active play, and family fun is necessary for healthy child development, and for adults too.

Taking a break from the news and social media gives the brain a rest. Finding time for fun and relaxation, even for just five-minutes can help. Taking a slow deep breath and relaxing your shoulders several times a day can provide more energy and patience at the end of a tough day.

Children are also experiencing uncertainty, fears, and other big feelings. Remember that the parents set the emotional tone in the home. I encourage parents to be positive about the school plan with their children. If children hear parents complaining or worrying about the plan, it can make it harder for children to feel safe and supported in that plan. — Dr. Linda McWhorter, Director of Widener University’s Child Therapy Clinic, Pennsylvania

5. Build a Strong Community of Support With Other Families

Working with marriages and teens, I’ve seen the anxiety and overwhelm that comes with planning for a school year that none of us know what to expect. The first thing parents need to do is to figure out the stance of the school district, to understand the district’s priority with how they provide school this year. If you have stayed connected with district board meetings, or read the transcripts from these meetings, awesome! Great start! If not, find another parent who has and ask them their understanding of the board’s approach to school.

The biggest factor in managing the uncertainty will be in having a strong support system outside of your family. You need a community of other people who are with you on this ride, whether it is choosing to homeschool or following the distance learning plans. These people will be able to connect with you in the suffering and uncertainty. But be careful of choosing people who just wallow in the suffering and play victim to their circumstances. That will not help. What you need are people who want support and to support others. — Alisha Sweyd, Marriage & Family Therapist, California

6. Look at What You Have Control Over and What You Don’t — And Act Accordingly

In situations like this, I teach clients radical acceptance. Radical acceptance means accepting something completely without fighting it, without judging and without trying to change it. Radical acceptance doesn’t mean approving of the situation or liking the situation; it means accepting reality as it is. Look at what you have control over and what you don’t and act accordingly.

Parents should look at the situation, allow themselves to grieve the loss of the ease of a typical school year, and do what they can to prepare for the different scenarios.

Try not to obsess. You can’t reduce uncertainty by obsessing, it will only increase your anxiety level. Realize what you don’t have control over. There is something very powerful about identifying what’s outside your control. Worries about new outbreaks, school closings, when will this be over, will someone i love get sick may pop into your head. These are unanswerable questions and you can give yourself permission to let them go. Tell yourself you don’t have control over this, and you don’t need to worry about it. Gently turn your mind away from the worry thoughts every time they pop up.

Keep in mind that you can’t plan your way out of an emotion. If you’re feeling angry or afraid or sad or anxious you need to allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling. These emotions are understandable given the current circumstance. You can’t problem-solve your way out of them. — Rebekah Shackney, Therapist, New York

7. Remember: You Cannot Control What Others Do

It’s important to keep in mind the things that are in our control and the things that are not. For instance, parents can control what sort of routine you want to put in place in the mornings and afternoons, how much time outside of school you want your children to spend with other children. But you cannot control whether other parents enforce mask wearing and social distancing in their homes, you cannot control whether other children wash their hands consistently. Worrying about these things will just cause you unnecessary stress.

Practice your own self care. It can be difficult to get time to yourself, especially for many of those parents who are working from home and have children who are too young to attend school. But, it’s necessary to prioritize doing at least 1-2 things/week that are rewarding to you and give you a sense of joy or peace. Self care doesn’t have to be just taking baths and doing yoga classes. Self care can involve small things like watching your favorite show.

It’s important to be careful with what messages and news we are taking in. Select a few sources that you find reliable for updates regarding the pandemic, and your children’s safety. Constantly reading various opinions all over social media can be overwhelming and confusing. Limiting the amount of information that you take in can help you manage your discomfort and shift your focus to other things. — Alexa Shank, Psychotherapist, Houston, TX

8. Dedicate No More Than 30 Minutes to Worrying

2020 has been a remarkable year for all the wrong reasons, with the pandemic and the recession layered atop a partisan election year. There’s a lot to be concerned about, and the decision to send children back to school or to pursue virtual education has parents worried. For some parents, the unfortunate reality is that they may not have a choice due to childcare concerns or financial responsibilities.

Dedicate time to unwinding. Mental Health is not something that is protected passively. If you find you’re stressed out or anxious about the school year, dedicate some time to purposeful relaxation exercises. Deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation take around ten minutes, and can be extremely beneficial at helping you ‘reset’.

Limit worry time. Worry management is a real thing. If you find that you’re constantly worried about things, dedicate 30 minutes of your day to worrying and problem solving, preferably in a single space within your home or office. This is your time to worry, obsess, and solve. When your 30 minutes is up, break away and return to other tasks. Should you find yourself worrying later in the day or outside your worry time, remind yourself that you have dedicated time to examine those specific concerns. — Benson Munyan, Clinical Psychologist, Orlando, FL

9. Acknowledge the Circumstances And Maintain a Schedule at Home

The first thing to do, which is very important, is to acknowledge that it’s going to be an unusual year. Be honest. Help kids understand what they are walking into, and reinforce that the new environment is intended to keep everyone safe and healthy. Explain that things may change – and that’s okay. Explain that everyone will need to be flexible and accepting

Maintain a schedule at home. Children thrive on a routine: make sure they are getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet and getting physical activity every day. Recognize that both children and adults may feel worried and stressed, but model positivity and reassure yourself and children that it will be okay.

Mindfulness techniques can help everyone cope with moments of stress or anxiety. Deep breathing exercises are easy and effective for children of all ages, as well as adults. — Dr. Zubair Khan, Child Psychiatrist, Bronx, NY

10. Educate Yourself. And Look For Opportunities to Help.

The last few months have taught being flexible is key to handle the current situation. Yes things are changing daily and information changes regularly but if we can remain calm this teaches our kids to remain calm about the upcoming school year. Part of the reason uncertainty gives us so much strife is because when we don’t have all the information we tend to allow negative thoughts to take over. Educate yourself about the changes by listening to credible sources or getting first hand information from the decisions makers. When we have all the information we can then make rational fully thought out decisions.

And look for the bright side. No, that doesn’t mean putting on rose-colored glasses and hoping for the best. It means looking for the actual bright side in this situation. The changes in the upcoming school year don’t mean it’s all doom and gloom. Educators and administrators are looking for input from parents and caregivers on how to best proceed. This gives you the opportunity to speak up and help shape what your child’s education will look like. — Erica Tatum-Sheade, Therapist, Arizona

11. Don’t Beat Yourself Up. And Remember That Uncertainty Makes Us Lie to Ourselves.

Uncertainty, in general, always drives anxiety. But there is always uncertainty in life. During times like this anxiety lies about “This is worse. This is real uncertainty.” And it sounds logical so we believe it. As a parent myself with school-aged children, I feel like I know more about the school than I did last year. We are actually in more control than we have ever been.

With any uncertainty, you can have compassion for yourself. Uncertainty is a context for fear. It is a regular human reaction, so you don’t have to beat yourself up for feeling it. But, also, you don’t have to stay there and get overwhelmed. You can override it by remembering that anxiety lies to you to get you to stay scared. — Jodi Aman, Counselor and Coach, Rochester, NY

12. Be Open — to a Point — With Your Children

Model how you handle the uncertainty. Most parents are also struggling with working from home, work-life balance, a messy house, health concerns,and more. Discuss and show your children how you are handling uncertainty. This could be comments like, “I’m also wondering how things will be…” and then share your responses. Is it talking with your co-workers? Exercise? Humor? Having online time with your friends? Getting outside? Talking it out? Journaling?

Leave the news off. Flashing COVID numbers on the television screen or in an article will not reduce uncertainty and only reminds children of the situation. You can tell your kids that it’s okay that there are unknowns but that everyone is working hard to get through this time. — Dr. Melanie English, Child Custody Evaluations and Family Mediation, Washington State

13. Think of it as a Good Opportunity to Model Acceptance Amidst Discomfort

Uncertainty can feel at odds with parenthood and leadership. We feel like we’re supposed to be like showing our kids the way. In a situation where we’re experiencing uncertainty with our kids, it can feel a little bit unnerving. What can be helpful is to know that this is actually good. It’s a good opportunity to model acceptance of uncertainty under appropriate circumstances. Uncertainty can sometimes signify to us that we need to do more, learn more, do more research and figure things out. Sometimes discomfort is a healthy feeling because it stimulates us to correct a problem.

But in the current situation, uncertainty is actually the appropriate state because nobody knows exactly what’s going to happen. It’s a good time to be a little bit transparent with our kids that sometimes we don’t quite understand exactly where things are going to go. But we have enough information to be comfortable taking steps forward. We can still put appropriate boundaries around the uncertainty by saying ‘although we don’t know exactly where we’ll be in November and right now we’re only in August getting ready for September, I will take care of you and we will find a way that works. We will change the plan when we need to, and you can count on that. That is for certain.’ That is the healthy assuring message where you can be a leader, but still acknowledge uncertainty. — Dr. Chloe Carmichael, Clinical Psychologist, New York, New York