Children everywhere are returning to school.
Whereas this would normally be an annual event the same as any other, marked largely by the usual difficulties of transitioning into a new grade or new campus, this year is different.
With COVID in decline, this is the first year in two wherein our children will be returning to a largely unmasked community. After two years of disruption, each of our kids will be facing the pressures of face to face socialization whilst attempting to navigate their way through a new normal. For many, it will be a moment of great difficulty, pushing through the persistent feelings of strangeness and newness and finding stable direction.
This is a moment that will tax student mental health.
As parents, we might be at a loss how to respond. We too have spent the last two years adjusting to the disorder this disease wrought. Some habits and capabilities that were once part and parcel of our daily parenting strategy might very well have been lost along the way. We too might have forgotten what a school day looks like.
It is more important ever that we as parents return to the basics.
What do I mean by this?
1. We need to offer a guiding hand.
Whether your child is entering kindergarten or returning for their last year of high school, don’t take it for granted that they understand the terrain. Be prepared to help walk them through some of the difficulties they are likely to encounter. Help them decide the best strategies for dealing with everything from new peers to stressed out teachers to academic decisions.
Have discussions. Without attempting to solve every possible problem they might encounter, take advantage of each moment you spend together to have one good, short discussion on what they would do or should do if XYZ happens.
For example, take the opportunity to pose questions when your child briefly brings up an issue:
“It’s interesting you tell me that Mrs. Doe is snapping at everyone during first period. What do you think you should do if she snaps at you?”
“So you’ve noticed he’s vaping now. What do you think your mother and I would think about you vaping? And why?”
Having sixty 1 minute conversations before a crisis arises is infinitely more valuable than having one 60 minute conversation once a crisis is in full swing.
2. Don’t cut the conversation.
If your child comes to you with a complaint, don’t dismiss it offhand.
Too often, even the most attentive parent is quick to shove aside their child’s assertions with a change of subject or a contrary remark. We know our children. We know their habits, both good and bad. And sometimes we allow ourselves to read those habits into the story they’re sharing, causing them to build a wall between us and future conversations of that sort.
For example, when a child comes to us complaining, “I’m reallllly trying, but PhysEd is just so pointless! Why do I have to run around a track at 8 in the morning anyway? Who cares!” it is very easy for us to reply with a quick “Exercise is good for you” as we continue cleaning. After all, you know she can be a bit lazy when it comes to physical activity. “She’s always been like that,” you tell your husband later. “She always complains when she is made to sweat.”
Your child needs to see you as a sounding board. She needs to know that feelings expressed will not go unnoticed.
This doesn’t mean that you encourage aimless complaints or negative comments. It simply means that you be willing to listen to those comments at length and that you be willing to work through a solution. If you have some perspective on the situation, bring it into the discussion. Even if that discussion ends with the same comment, “Exercise is good for you,” better to arrive there after letting your child engage in debate than to simply wave her away.
If your child thinks that you will only listen to positive comments, embracing good news whilst side-stepping the bad, they will learn to hide the latter. Which is dangerous both for them and for your relationship.
3. Be alert to changes.
Every year brings new friends, new conflicts, new challenges, and new adaptations. Some of those prove healthy and some of those prove unhealthy. The hardest part of being a parent is staying attuned to changes, both positive and potentially negative, in your child’s way of being, way of interacting, and way of thinking.
The best thing we as parents can do is keep an eye out and, more importantly, to be prepared to ask questions. Increased irritability with old friends, when last year’s best friend has become this year’s worst enemy, is grounds for a conversation. So too is signs of increased fatigue, weight loss, weight gain, distraction, obsession, etc.
That said, don’t be overly fearful of new social circles, mannerisms, or styles of dress.
The point is not to bombard your child with accusative or probing questions, but to encourage them to examine what underlies their behavior aloud and in a safe, fairly non-judgmental conversation. Be prepared to acknowledge and affirm, aloud if need be, that you are prone to misjudgments like everybody else. You don’t want to judge her. You just want to know how she sees her own behavior.
4. Encourage them to take it easy on themselves.
Grades are important. Exams are important. Academic progress is important.
Mental health is more important.
I want to see my children succeed at everything they do. That said, I also want to see them learn from both their successes and their failures.
During the school year, when our children are measuring and defining their capacities and capabilities, it is important for us to remind them that they are and always will be evolving and growing. Nothing is set in stone. That which is difficult today, be it a math exam or a social interaction, can become that which is second nature in a year’s time. But in order for that change to occur, our child has to nurture both the skill and their own health.
Nothing grows in unhealthy soil.
When we attempt to foster a new capability in a mind that is fragmented by stress and anxiety, we build long-term damage for the sake of short term success.
Throw everything of ourselves into it, from a week’s worth of sleep to our every weekend break, and we will pass that math exam. But we likely won’t become good at math, and we will be setting ourselves up for failure in other areas of our life.
Children have to be reminded of this. The majority of their priorities are defined by our priorities. It is therefore important that we prioritize their health and wellness above all things, explaining that said wellness is a prerequisite for any other skill development. When we see them failing their health, it is our job to help them reboot and to guide them through constructing a healthy, long-term solution for succeeding in their academic life.
I know everything above seems obvious. These are the basics. Why even mention them?
For one reason:
Whether we like it or not, we’ve all lived through a traumatic event. We’ve all experienced two years with varying degrees of unknowns and uncertainties and the stressors that accompany such times. And in such moments, ones of intense flux and discord, the basics are generally the first things we forget.
We take these rules for granted as self-evident. As a result, we often forget to implement them and impart them to our children.
For us, the world is old. We had a lot of time to see how life functioned prior to the pandemic. The eventful is always followed by the uneventful. Big shifts come and go, and the world still continues to turn on its axis. Life may not be particularly stable, but it is largely predictable in its unpredictability. We know how everything works. We understand that there was a way of things before COVID and there will be a way of things after.
For our kids, however, the world is only what they’ve experienced in the last decade.
It is turbulence and uncertainty and large numbers of adults pointing in different directions when dealing with any problem. It is social media and its erratic gossip disguised as fact. It is crises layered upon crises.
The only stability they know is that which we and our community supply.
The basics are how we supply it.
Wishing you and your children a successful new school year, one parent to another,