How to Cope With Sending Kids Back to School During a Pandemic

There are lots of emotions and no easy answers. Here's how to best deal with the guilt and ambiguity.

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I feel as though I’m throwing my kids to the wolves. I just don’t know if I’m making the right choice. Is it right to send them back? I think so, but I don’t know how to know for sure.

Speak to any parent about sending their kids back to school right now and you’re likely to get some version of uneasy angst. It’s easy to understand why: With COVID and particularly the Delta Variant looming large, and some districts refusing mask mandates, the decision of whether it’s safe to send a child back to school is marked by unknowns.

There are no easy answers here. But parents have one good path: learn how to cope with the guilt and ambiguity, take control of the certainties, and model the correct ways to discuss and express emotions with your children, says Dr. Benjamin Miller, PsyD. Dr. Miller is a nationally recognized health and wellbeing expert who has served as an advisor to presidential campaigns, states, and health systems. The president of the mental health non-profit WellBeingTrust, Dr. Miller has worked as a primary care psychologist and an adjunct professor at Stanford School of Medicine. He’s also a father of two.

Fatherly spoke to Dr. Miller about the best way handle the uncertainty and guilt, the right way to model emotions for children, how to prevent transferring their anxiety to your kids, and how to be kinder to yourself.

Parents are facing a lot of uncertainty this back-to-school season. There are so many unknowns. With that comes with a lot of guilt. What can they do to handle what they’re feeling?

Well, the first thing is that I don’t think there’s been a time in our lives with the level of uncertainty that we’re living with right now. So, the baseline is that we just don’t know enough. Many of us as parents are still learning how to cope with raising kids in general and then you put on top of that a pandemic. Uncertainty is just this factor that we’re going to have to live with for the foreseeable future.

The second thing, which comes along with that, is that guilt is a very normal emotion and something that we need to learn to process and manage like any other emotion. There is a normal sense of guilt that’s going to come along with almost all of us because we care about our kids and we want to put them into safe environments. When we’re putting them back into an environment that is less-than-ideal, we’re going to have to process some of those emotions.

Once they process their emotions, how can someone best frame the uncertainty in a way that helps?

Here is a very simple explanation: There are certain things that you can control, and there are certain things that you can’t. For things that you can’t control, you cope; for those that you can control, you plan.

Say the unvaccinated rates in my area are sky-high, and my kids’ school has not made a mask mandate. Well, there’s not a lot that I’m going to be able to do to control other people’s behaviors. So that’s on me to manage my emotion, my anger, my frustration, and my sadness, and figure out a way to cope with that. As parents it’s our job to model for our children what it’s like to cope with emotion and what it’s like to deal with things out of your control because a lot of life is out of your control.

What about the things you can control?

For those things you can control which goes into our certainty, then that’s where you plan. So, if your school doesn’t have a mask mandate, put a mask on your kid. That is a way that you can control some of the uncertainty because you know you’re mitigating their risk at least ever-so-slightly by doing something that works against the virus.

Other things that you can control: your own social networks. This is a big one. I dealt with this a lot myself. When my oldest daughter’s school didn’t have a mask mandate in place, we were finding that our child was one of the only children in the school wearing a mask. That’s a very lonely feeling for the kid. It’s also very lonely feeling for the parent.

Recognizing that, I thought, What can we do that’s within our control? Well, let’s find other parents that are likeminded. So, we did. We found other parents that were sending their kid to school with masks, and we talked to them and we were able to vent some of those emotions. We were also able to plan out a course of action so we could take our kids out to lunch when everybody’s eating with their masks on. Basic stuff like that that’s within our control.

If a parent is internally anxious about sending their kids to school, what can they do to prevent transferring that anxiety to their children?

Kids are extremely intuitive and pick up on Mom and Dad’s winds, both emotional and otherwise. I think the worst thing that a parent could do is to pretend as if nothing is happening, to shy away from discussing the difficulties of these times and rather than embrace their emotion to put it away. It’s not modeling proper social emotional behavior for our kids.

The first thing that parents could do is they could be open in their communication with their children. They can talk about the situation very pragmatically. They don’t need to go into all the details — but there are things that kids do need to know. So, communicating to them is a way to help the child really understand a bit about why mom or dad is feeling a certain way.

Second, name the emotion. You describe to them how you’re feeling. This is especially important for men to do. We’re very cerebral; we stay in our heads a lot. So model for your children getting out of that headspace and getting into your emotions and vocalizing that. You can say, “Dad’s pretty angry right now that your school didn’t mandate masks and I feel like they’re putting you at risk. So, I’m trying to deal with that frustration and I want you to understand that that’s where I’m coming from.”

Having that emotional language is so important.

Absolutely. If you don’t name it, then then it never really finds a place in your life. Naming those emotions and helping children understand that parents are dealing with very similar emotions that they’re dealing with allows them to see how Mom and Dad processes emotions.

In terms of the guilt parents might feel right now, what’s the key to coping?

The easiest ways that parents can begin to manage some of their guilt is a very basic exercise of putting things into categories of cost/benefit because parents don’t always see the positive.

So, I think for some folks, it might be as easy as pulling out a sheet of paper and putting two columns on it and saying What are the things that my child benefits from? And what are the things that we’re putting them at risk or that is at cost to them? That’s a way to start to feel a little bit better about some of that guilt you might have taken on.

Is there a way you might suggest that parents be a bit kinder to themselves during these times? I was speaking with a group of fathers the other night and one said that he can’t stop getting mad at himself for not knowing what to do in terms of sending his kids to school. Many of the others in attendance nodded in agreement.

Well, in many cases, we have misdirected anger. So sometimes it’s just making sure that you are aware which direction the arrow is pointing Again, this is very stereotypical about men, but sometimes we do like to fix things. When you can’t fix it, you might get mad.

This might be an opportunity for men to, say, go and talk to the school board or show up at the PTA meeting or go and listen to a meeting that the principal is having about what’s happening at school. It’s a way to get involved so there’s more that they can actually “do” to help your child versus being a passive recipient of whatever decision was made by some arbitrary body.

Finally, if a parent is feeling overwhelmed by any of these emotions, when is it time for them to seek help?

I think it’s all about functionality. When an emotion begins to interfere with your life, your relationships, your job, or anything else it’s time to get help. I think this is important for everyone to hear: Do not need to wait until there’s a huge problem for you to get help. Mental health counseling can benefit everybody at every stage of life because it’s always something that we could do to improve our overall mental health and well-being. But for most people, if it’s starting to interact and affect your relationships, your life, your job, that’s a big sign.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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