Another School Year of Uncharted Territory: Tips to fortify your family this Fall 2021

By: Anastasia Sullwold Ristau, PhD

This is usually a time of year that carries a mix of emotions. This year however, many families may be finding the Fall of 2021 particularly heavy with anxiety, stress, and frustration.  Families across the U.S. have been returning to in-person school—and in some cases work—during a time that many may still be reeling from the 0 to 100 ramp up this spring and summer with youth sports and activities. In-person vs virtual forces some habit change and infringes upon shrinking comfort zones. We’ve gone all in, with little time to adjust, while trying to grapple with variable rules and regulations regarding masks and vaccines, thick with ongoing intense debates over a lack of agreement about these things.  Gone are the days when readjusting sleep schedules and family routines along with securing school supplies, shoes, clothing, and backpacks were the biggest pieces of the back-to-school puzzle. The return to in-person school and work on the horizon earlier this summer for many began to feel manageable and hopeful. Just as it seemed that things were looking up, the new variants of COVID-19 and resulting polarizing perspectives has created a psychological whiplash, of sorts.

This, interwoven within ongoing racially complex civil strain and conflict as our country continues the progression towards addressing racism, combined with already worn down everything and everyone, is taking a toll on both the medical and mental health of people everywhere. Here we are, fresh into another school year filled with uncertainty and risks, with no parent or teacher manual or roadmap to be found. Luckily, we are capable of learning and growing in some powerful ways. The good news is that there are a variety of pathways we can take when it comes to fostering resiliency and buffering ourselves, our loved ones, and each other from the mental health hits inevitable within a time like this. Ultimately, I hold hope, as we move through each chapter of this time, that we are recalibrating to recognize the resulting strength, clarity, and healthier sense of what is most important to us, both collectively and individually.  As parents, youth and teachers are now trudging through the additional uncharted territory that this 2021-2022 school year brings. Here are a few tips for navigating this with mental health and resiliency in mind:

Adjust expectations of ourselves & others; know that no one way is “the right way”. Previous good habits have been lost. Discuss specific expectations for social, classroom, hallway, meeting, & workplace etiquette.  Discuss masks, vaccination, etc. in a way that reflects your own values but also emphasizes respect & acceptance of perspectives that may differ. Set expectations for kindness, grace & meeting others where they are at rather than where you think they should be. Allow for extra time for literally everything, from getting out the door to settling in to a new-normal. Stay focused on the journey & the experiences of re-engaging in person rather than focusing upon the outcome, grades, or endgame of various academic skills. Mistakes are valuable. Progress over perfection. Resiliency comes when we keep going despite when hiccups or trip-ups occur.

Focus on the day-to-day basics; keep daily routines as stable & consistent as possible. This framework becomes your anchor. Providing a stable foundation at home will help everyone in the family feel more safe, secure & rooted. Things like regular family meals, wake & bedtime routines, & consistent physical activity are all important. Encouraging voice, choice, and taking control where possible feels good and fortifies our foundations!

Be the calm you wish others to feel. All the feels may be lingering and patience may feel worn thin. Anxious and stressed? Absolutely. Angry, disappointed, and hurting? No doubt. You have a right to all your emotions and for sure are not alone in the range that you are feeling. Keep working to find your healthy outlet, making sure to tend to those more intense layers with other trusted adults, a therapist, or a psychologist. There is incredible value to children observing us experience a normal range of emotions, especially when they see us move through these in a healthy way. However, becoming unhinged during the more intense flavors present these days can translate to fear and uncertainty for youth, sometimes impacting children in unintended ways. Your emotions are contagious but so is your regulation or coping with those emotions. Kids will draw their own conclusions if we don’t help them understand. Use your words to label and describe feelings, then partner with your kids to engage in positive self-talk, deep slow breathing, imagining things going okay, setting the intention for a calm, respectful experience at school, etc.  Honoring mistakes or struggles as valuable and getting back up helps build resiliency.

Refresh and Expand “In-Person” Habits & Interpersonal Comfort Zones.  Practice in small doses. Highlight benefits of re-engaging with others. Focus on relationships, opportunities to reconnect & the value of doing so in-person. Help each other find meaning and purpose in being a part of something bigger than ourselves. Stay focused upon the here-and-now and challenge yourself to keep it real. Chances are you’ll find many others appreciating your authenticity and relatability!

Dr. Ristau is a Licensed Psychologist and Director of Therapeutics at PrairieCare. For more blogs written by her, click here.