Seriously?! How Do I Face Back-to-School 2021?
Dr. Lisa Damour and Reena Ninan kick off Season Two of Ask Lisa by talking about how to cope with another school year under Covid-19. They tackle a letter from a parent seeking advice on how to deal with her own anxiety about kids going back to school as the Delta variant rages. She is exhausted and does not see relief coming any time soon. How do we help our kids feel school-ready when we are running on empty?
August 24, 2021 | 23 min
Transcript | Seriously?! How Do I Face Back-to-School 2021?
Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 44: Seriously, How Do I Face Back to School 2021?
The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional
mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,
consult a physician or mental health professional.
REENA: You know, you promised me a summer of love and restoration. That was not what I got.
LISA: Nobody did, Reena, nobody did. I had such high hopes for this glorious end to the pandemic.
REENA: You did, and you really set us up well if that was the ending and it’s sort of like.
LISA: I know. I lied. I didn’t mean to live but it feels like I lied to myself and everyone else, but I think we all lied to ourselves. We had to find a way to get there.
REENA: I feel like this is like choose your own adventure except we’re not getting to choose your own adventure. It’s like somebody else chooses the adventure and I’m trying to find humor in this, Lisa, because there’s nothing funny about any of this.
LISA: I know. I mean, Reena, I’m bummed. I’m legitimately bummed because there were things that I had really been looking forward to, and I think that’s the part about this phase of the pandemic that feels sort of like a fresh new hell. You know that we’d finally let ourselves get excited about what came after, make plans for what came after, and now we’re canceling those plans, and that is so hard.
REENA: It is hard and just the disappointment over and over and over again. I mean you think getting the vaccines. I thought, okay we’re in the end zone right? It turns out we’re not.
REENA: And then we got this letter in our inbox. We thought this is a great way to sort of kick off Season 2. It says, ‘Dear Lisa and Reena, I could really use your advice. I’m a mom of an elementary student and a high school freshman. The summer left me exhausted and running on empty. I’m so anxious about this new school year. I know you say, Lisa, that avoidance feeds anxiety, but I just don’t know how to deal with the uncertainty of what to expect this school year. I also worry about my school district going back to remote learning. My children did not do well, and I felt I just gave up towards the end of the school year. The thought of my kids being stuck at home with no social life and subpar education gives me so much anxiety. Not all the families are as cautious as we are about masks. What really matters right now for my kids’ development and success? What should I be focusing on when everything seems so uncertain? I also know it doesn’t help that I’m so drained. I don’t want them to see me anxious too. I thought the worst was over, but why does it seem like just when we think we’re out of this it turns out we’re not? Would love any coping strategies.’ Gosh where do you even begin, Lisa, with this letter?
LISA: Oof. I know, right? It’s a pretty overwhelming letter, and I think this mom speaks for many, many people in terms of what they feel when they train their eye on back to school. You know and of course some families have already gone back to school, some families are on the brink of going back to school, some families have another week or so, but it’s a lot, right? As we say sometimes on this podcast, it’s a lot, and as I listened to what this mom brings across, she feels sort of flooded with worries, and I don’t think that’s unusual right now. There’s so many different possibilities of ways this could be really challenging, you know, whether it’s another lockdown, which I really sincerely hope does not happen, whether it’s, you know, people being loose about masking in ways that feels scary for yourself and your kids, whether it’s, you know, learning loss I mean there’s just so much to focus on, and she even says in the letter, I don’t even know what to focus on, and that does seem to me to be the nugget of this. Like where do we even train our attention.
REENA: Yeah. So, what would you suggest?
LISA: Well, as a clinician, the place I would actually have this mom train her attention first is on trying to feel a bit more restored herself, which I know seems impossible in some ways right now, but what she said in the letter about all of this and I feel so drained I think are quite connected. You know like the truth is yes there’s all of this. It is made worse, as she acknowledges in the letter, by feeling drained. So, the first thing I would have her do, and parents to everywhere, is to see what can be done to feel a bit better ourselves, to sort of try to get some gas in our tanks, as we enter into this new phase of uncertainty and disappointment.
REENA: You know she’s worrying so much about our kids as well, and so it’s almost like she is struggling and then she’s worried about what her kids might be struggling with even before any of this begins.
LISA: Well that’s right, and I think that doubles down on my wish for her to find a sense of feeling a bit more sturdy, and I want it for two reasons. One is I want her to feel better, and let’s think through like what can parents be doing right now to try to shore themselves up. The other reason is that her kids, our kids, pick up on, and and she acknowledges this, how we’re doing, and so if we want them to feel steady in this, we owe it to them to do what we can to regulate ourselves as well as possible.
REENA: But how do you do that without being fake, right? I don’t want them to be like, oh everything’s okay, I also want to teach them these are real risks. You don’t have to worry about it all the time, but I’m worried about all the time and I’m anxious and I’m living with them 24 hours a day practically, how does that not bleed into their perception of what’s going on if I’m feeling that way?
LISA: Yeah, we don’t want to sugar coat things. We don’t want to give them the sense that it’s going to be normal, like we know it’s not and we know that there’s some uncertainty. One thing I have certainly noticed in terms of regulating my own discomfort about where we are and what we might be headed, is that a huge amount of it is tied to how much I am tracking the news during the day. I feel like my emotional life is at the mercy of Twitter half the time.
REENA: Oh my gosh yeah.
LISA: And that’s just what I look at because, you know, I follow a lot of journalists. There’s a lot of news there that I find useful, but I had a baby recently where I was in meetings all day and busy all day in a way that just kept me away from social media, and at the end of the day I noticed how much calmer I felt than on the day prior where I’d had a lot of access to the news and could keep an eye on Twitter as the day went on. So, one thing I would have parents consider doing, adults consider doing, is if, especially if they’re feeling very anxious and keyed up and worried about what’s coming and we’ve got all this information we don’t really know what to make of it and it all moves so fast is I would have parents think about how often they’re looking at news updates and how that’s working for them.
REENA: That’s Interesting because you see a correlation between that, and I can see, and upping your anxiety. How do you help this mom also find some relief for herself, right? Because she’s really suffering.
LISA: She is, and the way I’ve been thinking about things a lot lately is just trying to find some equilibrium. Sonot around like, hey how do you feel fabulous? How do you feel hopeful and great and wonderful right now? Like that’s not, unfortunately, on the menu, but how do we find some equilibrium. So, if you know you’re feeling kind of flooded by bad news, one way to find equilibrium is to take a break from looking at the news. It will be there when you get back, but your body deserves, your mind deserves a break from all that. If she’s having trouble sleeping because she’s so anxious, what would help her be able to get a good night’s sleep? And again, we’ve talked about it over and over, sleep is the glue that holds us together. That is usually necessary. If she needs to clear her mind, can she get out in nature? Can she do things that just let her dial down that flooded sense that comes across in the letter of all of these questions happening all at once? Now, that doesn’t make any of this better or different, but it might help her feel a bit more balanced as she faces each question. Now that gets to the part of the letter that I think, you know, once there’s a sense of a little bit more balance, a little bit more equilibrium, which I know we have to work hard for at this point, then the next thing that came up in that letter that really caught my attention is, don’t even know what to focus on.
REENA: Yeah. How do you help her figure that out? What should all of us be focusing on right now?
LISA: Honestly, I think we should be focusing on the week in front of us. I think that this is moving so fast. There are so many variables at work. There is so much that we have to wait for information on that if we try to project out weeks and weeks or months and months, it becomes overwhelming and too hard to take in, and so it takes me back, and I really feel sad about this, it takes me back to something I heard early in the pandemic from a physician when the first frightening wave came and medical personnel were caring for COVID patients but they didn’t have enough supplies, and there was a physician who in that moment, and I wish I knew who it was, I saw a quote from her saying, do I have what I need for today to keep myself safe? And so I think we can go beyond the day, maybe a week, but what I would say as parents are overwhelmed by all the questions and all of the possibilities, many of them upsetting about where we’re at is does my kid have what he or she needs, what they need, this week? Do they have a mask I feel really good about? Do they have a teacher who’s got their back and paying attention? Are we able to start the school year with some joy, some pleasure, maybe some new shoes, maybe a fresh backpack that makes it a bit more fun? Do we have this week in hand? And I would really try to narrow the aperture here because the data change so fast. The situation moves so quickly.
REENA: But I mean I’m already thinking about Christmas and Thanksgiving, and, you know, my mind cannot focus on one day at a time. I’m like, will there be like this land a variant coming down? Are we going to have another family-less Christmas and Thanksgiving? When your mind is racing, how do you calm it?
LISA: Well, interestingly, Reena, for what it’s worth, and not that I’m the measure of how one should do this. I don’t think about those things.
REENA: What do you mean?
LISA: Like I actively don’t think right now about Thanksgiving and Christmas. Like I am making a point of not going there mentally, and now that you’ve brought it up, of course I’m going to think about it a little bit, but what I want us to try to do, and I mean the pandemic is just made us think so much about how our minds work and our emotions work. One way that sometimes I try to think about my mind is like a horse and a rider, and I try to remember that like I want to keep some reins on that horse, you know, I don’t want my mind running to frightening or overwhelming places that just leave me feeling helpless and upset, and so it’s okay, I think sometimes, to grab the reins and be like you know what? We are not going there. We are not going to think about Christmas right now. We are not going to think about Thanksgiving right now. We’re going to think about Wednesday. Do you have what you need for Wednesday?
LISA: And the reason I’m going down that line of thinking is there’s nothing I can do right now that makes a difference about thanksgiving or makes a difference about Christmas, and so it is a big job to get kids started with the school year under totally normal conditions.
LISA: It is a bigger job with all of these weird question marks lingering around. I’m going to keep my energy for that big job that is in front of me where I can actually do things that make a difference.
REENA: So, Lisa, I like how in this letter this mom is very conscious that she doesn’t want to be freaking out in front of her kids or passing on her anxiety to her children, but how do you cope then? I mean is it okay to start talking to other people? Should you? You always say you just need one friend. I mean how do you deal with that when you don’t want to pass on anxiety to your kids?
LISA: I do think talking to a friend is a really good idea. Like a grown up friend, and of course we all know who the right kind of friends are for these conversations. You know sometimes we have friends where we love them, but talking to them always leaves us feeling worse, and we also have, you know, grown up friends who we can count on to either counterbalance how we’re feeling or join us in a way that actually leaves us feeling better. So, what we want to remember in all of this is when we have a lot of painful emotions, and this mom has a lot of painful emotions that do not lend themselves to a practical solution, right? It’s not like there’s an answer here that like, oh magically, this will fix the problem, and then you won’t have this painful emotion. So she doesn’t have that at her disposal right now. The other route, then, for relief of painful emotions is to talk about it with a compassionate listener, and so we want to get some of this out of our heads, right? We want to find someone where we can say, I’m really anxious about how the fall’s looking. Or I’m really worried that there could be another lockdown to say the words to somebody who either says, you know what? I hear you and I’m right there with you or I’m not so worried and I’ll tell you why. That act, that interaction takes the temperature down on those feelings without in real life changing anything. It still helps to moderate those emotions. When we think about the tools in our toolbelt for trying to feel better we have things like fabulous self care and we have things like finding a compassionate listener and talking with them about how we’re feeling, which almost all the time leaves us feeling better.
REENA: You know she’s talking about the anxiety and her kids and assessing, you know, where they are. My dad rented this beach house in Dustin, Florida, and this was like months ago that he rented it, by the time we went there there was a 30 percent positivity rate in that area in Florida for COVID. I was terrified. We had all these plans. Everything was canceled, the stuff we were going to do in bigger crowds, going golfing, you know, horseback riding. We decided not to do a lot of these things. The first night I asked the kids to wear masks around their cousins who were visiting from Texas. It lasted maybe 45 minutes. They said, it’s just so hot, mom, it’s so uncomfortable, and then there were bunk beds, Lisa, and she wanted to sleep in the bunk beds with her cousins. This was like such a big deal to her and I said, you know what? Let’s just play it low key. Why don’t you stay in the room with me and we’ll assess tomorrow, and she came in and my 9-year-old started crying and she said, mom I’d rather get COVID than not be able to have this moment with my cousins who I never get to see, and I thought to myself, oh my god, you know, I have been so anxious about this that I haven’t processed how she’s looking at it or even trying to re-evaluate the risks where, you know, every parent is doing things that makes them feel comfortable, but that moment for me made me realize how many things that she might be missing or judgment calls I’m making that might be holding her back. How do you assess your kids’ development and what they can and can’t handle, and how should you shield them? You know what maybe, I don’t know, are we being too overprotective? It’s so confusing, Lisa, so confusing.
LISA: Ugh. What a story, but it gives us some places to go. So, first of all, you’re the parent. You get to make the call on what you think is safe. Full stop. And if you’re not sure, ask your pediatrician what they would do in that position. You know, and maybe not everybody has easy access to their pediatrician, but if you see something coming and you are not sure what the right call is to make, put in a call to pediatrician and see if you can have a quick phone call about it, but I don’t want parents to feel like they don’t get to keep their kids safe in the ways that make medical sense. Absolutely it’s important we do that. Then it gets to the question of what your daughter can handle, and her sense of feeling like she’s missing out, which indeed she is missing out. The fact that she walked in and told you that and was able to say, I am really sad about this. I’d almost rather get COVID or maybe I’d actually rather good COVID than not get to, you know, have the sleepover with my cousin in this particular way, honestly, Reena, I feel like you are batting 1,000 that she is in there telling you that even though she is upset because what she is doing is communicating her distress to you, and that is what we want kids to do.
LISA: Yean, absolutely. If they are using language to express distress we are already doing great. We are already doing great because then we do for them what we want our good friends to do for us, which is to say, I totally hear you. I know this feels awful. I am so sorry. Empathy offers relief. We have to keep remembering that. Or say, you know what? I get it that you would rather get COVID, but I am not okay with you getting COVID, and it is my job to keep you safe, so I’m going to stick to this rule, but that does not mean that your feelings aren’t valid, and I wish we weren’t put in this position, but we are. You’ll be okay. There will be sleepovers with your cousin going forward, but that sense of feeling like we’re doing all right when our kids are telling us how they’re feeling. We have to keep remembering that. Them being in distress right now is a done deal. Us having the wherewithal to be empathic towards their distress, which does help to alleviate it, is where we want to be.
REENA: Well that makes me feel way better because having your kid come and say, I’d rather get COVID, mom, than be away from my cousins and doing fun things was not a good moment for me.
LISA: No. It sounds awful, and I think that’s what’s so brutal about where we’re at is our kids are over it. We are over it. Everyone is tired, and so that’s why I want us to just put back in front of us. We still have tools and the tools still work. Being empathic, really listening, sticking to medical consensus. These are tools that we can continue to fall back on, and we’re tired of using them. We want to just have a much more normal experience. I do think it will come, and it will feel so much better when it does.
REENA: It’s great. I feel a lot better about starting this school year. I did not think a year, if you’d asked us when we started the show a year ago, would we be in the same spot in a year. No. I don’t think we would have thought that, but I’m grateful for your advice, Lisa. So, before we go, what do you have for us for parenting to go?
LISA: You know I’m not the first one to use this metaphor, but I’m thinking a lot right now about the parents as the pilot and our kids as passengers on our plane, and we may be very tired. We may not be entirely sure where this flight is headed, but if we are screaming in the cockpit it’s really, really scary to the kiddos on our plane. So, we are tired. We are trying to get through this. We will get through this, and we have to remember that they are watching us. They are keeping an eye on us, and so as we fly into fall 2021 I think we just want to try to have our hands steady on, what do they call it? A wheel at the front of the plane? I don’t know what they call it, and thinking about do I know how to get through the next 10 miles here and really just focusing on that.
REENA: And hopefully the plane lands somewhere warm and tropical in Bermuda that is COVID free.
LISA: That would be fabulous. All right, Reena, glad to be back with you for season 2.
REENA: I’m really excited about the season and grateful for your advice, Lisa. See you next week.
LISA: See you next week.