How to Handle Anxiety Over Back-to-School Decisions

It’s helpful to remember that in times of chaos, the dogged search for certainty can itself lead to distress. Dr. Pearson pointed out that the goal is not to guarantee that your child will never be exposed to a virus particle. That is impossible. The goal is to make a realistic plan that will holistically keep teachers, families and children as safe as possible.

Spending time considering how you will navigate the logistics of blended learning come fall is productive if you are engaged in problem solving and making concrete decisions. Ruminating about the social distancing precautions each family in your kid’s school is taking is less productive, for you don’t have any control there. Especially in times of uncertainty, it’s seductive to believe that if you worry about something for long enough, you can affect the outcome, but this is a fallacy.

Many of my patients are coming to me asking how they can get rid of that nagging feeling that they aren’t making the right choice for their kids. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but that’s not how feelings work. You can’t just turn them off.

To be a parent during a pandemic is to be worried and uncomfortable. But the good news is that it’s not the worry itself that’s the problem, it’s what you do with it. When those unproductive worries or overwhelming feelings arise, do you let them drag you down into doomscrolling or reassurance seeking? If you fall into these habits, practice getting space by doing daily exercises to create psychological distance.

One strategy for distancing is called defusion. The goal is to avoid being “hooked” by any one thought or feeling, and instead to view yourself as an observer of your mind. You can imagine that your thoughts are like leaves, floating down a stream, or like plates of sushi, moving along a conveyor belt. When your mind starts moving into the slippery slope of unproductive worries, try naming them: “There goes my mind again.” This highlights the difference between “having a thought” and “buying a thought.” When unproductive worries strike, you don’t have to go down that rabbit hole of trying to disprove them or reassure yourself, you can just let them be. It’s not bad feelings or thoughts that are the problem. It’s what we do with them that causes more suffering.

Instead of spending time chasing certainty and second-guessing your decisions, work on being self-compassionate; nurture a sense of good will toward yourself for facing this hard decision. Monitoring your self-talk is a key component of self-compassion. Are you holding yourself to an impossible standard by trying to predict the future? Are you blaming yourself for a situation that is completely out of your control? Let go of self-judgment and try developing some positive self-talk, such as: “I’m making the best choice for my family with the information I have” or “this decision works for us and our level of risk tolerance.”

For some parents, their grief and guilt around a lost school year has morphed into obsessive researching or catastrophizing. It can be less confronting to rage over the prospect of more home-schooling than to let yourself feel the sadness of your child not getting to have a full kindergarten experience. Recently, one of my patients broke down crying because she wouldn’t be able to see her son’s pre-K classroom, and that he wasn’t allowed to decorate his cubby. We realized that her grief was masquerading as anxiety, and once she let herself feel that sadness she felt some relief.

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