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How To Talk to Your Kids as They Go Back to School During COVID-19?

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By Nancy Kislin, LCSW


Growing up, I always looked forward to my annual ritual of shopping for back to school clothes, a new lunch box and school supplies. Each year, my mother would also take my sister and I to lunch at IHOP. This was our special treat to commemorate the beginning of the school year.

I continued the tradition while raising my girls, except we substituted our favorite Asian restaurant for IHOP. I celebrated our shopping trips, buying them the latest trending back-to-school “uniform,” which included special items such as a North Face jacket, colored jeans, and the velvet Juicy jackets, it was the 90's. And of course, we made numerous trips to the local Staples store to buy school supplies.

Now as we approach this back-to-school time of year, I find myself yearning for the traditions of the past. While my girls are working women now, the strangeness of this situation has not escaped me. I know that many parents, who have had similar back-to-school traditions as I did, will have to adapt to a new routine.

I am filled with questions such as: When will my daughters return to their lives? When will I return to my life? When will it be safe to sit in an office across from my clients? But I don’t have to deal with the really hard question of “Is it safe to send my children back to school?” or “How much will my kids learn if all their classes are virtual?”

With school plans ranging from school opening on a part time schedule to all remote learning, I can only imagine the struggle of the parents — who have to cope and innovate around these plans, doing the best for their children in these circumstances. I have witnessed the stress that has been brought out as a result of the school plans, in both parents and their children.

While many parents are often caught up in figuring things out for their children, overwhelmed with the decision-making and uncertainty, we must not forget that our children are witnesses. How is this new back-to-school period affecting our children? Rather than being overly critical or distraught, parents must help their kids see and accept their realities in the best of light — creating as much positive anticipation as possible.

When your kids ask “Mom — why is our school in-person and my friend’s school is online only?” you must answer without adding alarm or panic to the already tense child.

First, come from a place of understanding that the current status of affairs is really hard for your kids. I know it is hard for you, but this conversation is about and for your kid. Monitor your tone of voice, so that it is not filled with rage or sadness. Remember to plan ahead and have a goal for the conversation. The primary goal needs to be helping your child feel safe and loved.

Most importantly, I want you to take a few deep breaths and sit with the idea that your child may not learn as much in their actual classes this year, but that they will learn and grow in other ways. You just need to accept that school is not going to

be the same — but different does not always mean bad or worse. I encourage you to make the most of this opportunity.

I saw a story about teens in Iowa who got school credit for their physical education class by doing physical chores for elderly or sick neighbors. It is stories like these that remind me of the endless opportunities of learning, experiencing and growing your child can have this year. It may be different and uncomfortable, it may demand you to be creative, as you embark on this journey. But shifting your focus from grades to developing an interesting, kind, compassionate, loving, giving, inquisitive child, is a rare but crucial opportunity. You don’t have to do it alone — so many parents are alongside you in this journey. Your first step is taking that deep breath and creating space to allow for change to be okay.

As we rush into a new season and a new era, let’s remember to make time to cherish the moments, as stressful and crazy as it is. While we may not be able to go back-to-school shopping or go to the local restaurant to celebrate this year, think about how you can find new ways of celebration and happiness. Creating memories, spending time together to laugh, to exercise, to give back to your community — these are all things that help children feel safe and experience lower levels of anxiety. Hopefully, it helps you too!

This post comes from the TODAY Parenting Team community, where all members are welcome to post and discuss parenting solutions. Learn more and join us! Because we're all in this together.