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View from Vis: Dr. Jules Nolan with emotional well-being tips for back to school

Dr. Jules Nolan HeadshotAs we look to the fall and how our children will go back to school, we are filled with mixed emotions. Because this is a time of such uncertainty, our human brains try to fill the unknowns with fear and anxiety. This phenomenon, called negativity bias, protects us by keeping us alert to external dangers, however, it also often leads to us ruminating on, and over emphasizing, negative information.

Let me give you an example. Pretend your boss said to you, "I am very impressed with your attention to detail and your ability to be concise and accurate in your work. Your peers like and respect you and overall, we are happy with your performance. I would like to see you demonstrate more leadership in projects." Which of those statements are you likely to think about over and over? Which will you talk to your spouse about? Which will you use to create your own self-talk? The leadership comment....right?

Negativity bias gets in our way, creates stress and anxiety, and impairs our accurate perception of circumstances. This happens when we think about our children, as well. When our kids are sad, we worry that they are depressed. When they are fearful, we worry that they have an anxiety disorder and negativity bias is the culprit. As we move back to school, be aware of negativity bias and of how our feelings, especially fear and anxiety, affect our children.

Humans also have the ability to "co-regulate" with each other. This means that our children's brains are able to "read" our underlying emotional states. They don't typically have conscious awareness of our emotional state, but they "feel" when we are worried, sad, fearful, angry, etc., and it affects their emotional state as well.

In order to keep emotions in check, here are some tips to be proactive and preventive as we move back to school.

  • Take care of yourself FIRST. Practice self-compassion. Build several moments into your day to care for yourself physically, emotionally, cognitively and spiritually. By this I truly mean "moments," not hours or even several minutes. When you drink a glass of water, congratulate yourself on attending to your physical body. When you walk up the stairs, give yourself a pat on the back. When you deflect a conflict with your kids that is unnecessary, celebrate a "successful mommy moment or daddy decision." You don't have to do everything every day, but do something each day in one of these categories to care for yourself and notice that you are doing so.
  • Be careful about what you say and the news media you consume for yourself and especially in front of your kids. Small children (prior to 10 years old) should be protected from news media. Remember that headlines and soundbites are made to grab our attention, usually by making us afraid. Keep informed, but if you are consuming news more than 3 times per day, and for more than 30 minutes, it's too much. Older children (over 12) can talk with you about news they have seen, but help them understand the motivation for news companies to make us afraid.
  • Practice face covering, hand washing and social distancing now, and make a game of it. Some parents have asked me if these new safety precautions (especially face coverings) will be a traumatic experience for kids. The truth is that these should not be any more traumatic than the other measures we take to keep kids safe (bike helmets, car seats, lockdown drills). As long as parents are confident about these things, kids will be. For small children, practice what 6 feet apart looks like using pool noodles or paint stir sticks and a game of tag. Play "guess my feelings" by expressing emotions with eyes and eyebrows only. You will be surprised at how quickly our students get good at reading emotions this way.
  • Talk about emotions and build emotional vocabulary. Children who have more words around emotion in 1st and 2nd grade are less anxious and depressed in 6th and 7th grade (Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence). There are about 2000 words in the English language that describe emotions. Small children have 3-5, grown-ups have 10-15 (Marc Brackett). In psychology, we say "name it to tame it." Simply talking about emotion helps us manage it. But don't spend time ruminating. If your child says "I feel anxious," ask where in the body he or she is feeling this. Explore whether this is a comfortable or uncomfortable feeling. Then help them understand that they can manage feeling uncomfortable for a short time. Help them know they can feel afraid and BRAVE at the same time. Also develop self-calming strategies, but being able to endure uncomfortable emotions is most important.
  • Expect regression. When we are in an adjustment phase, even if the adjustment is a good thing, our brains tend to veer into the fight/flight system, which makes it difficult to maintain a previous level of performance. That means that children who were toilet trained might start to have accidents. Kids who are pretty good at managing emotions might start to have melt-downs. Teens who can navigate relationships might have conflict. This is all to be expected. Have patience. If it lasts for more than a month, or if behavior and emotional adjustment sharply and continuously declines, seek outside therapeutic help. Most kids will be back to themselves after a month or so, as long as we don't get too worried about it and thus make them worried about it. Of course, if it is ever a matter of health or safety, seek professional help.
  • Expect slow ramp up to academic learning and less persistence. During an adjustment like this, especially with all the fear and anxiety that has surrounded COVID-19 and recent social unrest, our brains tend to limit energy for absorbing academic learning because they are trying to put all resources into our large muscles (to fight or flee). Academic learning cannot happen until students feel safe, connected and protected. Focus on developing relationships at school. Students who have two non-parental grown ups who they feel CARE about them are more resilient, and will have a better time navigating this. Children who have one or two good friends are often better adjusted than those who have a large circle of friends.
  • Know the key to great parenting: to love your child and pay attention. Parents today have more pressure than ever to provide a "perfect" childhood experience. We worry if our children are sad, intervene to keep them from being disappointed, and pressure ourselves to react perfectly when they misbehave. This is neither realistic nor is it helpful. We don't owe our children a fairytale childhood. We owe them our love and attention, but also our imperfection. Remember that you are not preparing your children for a perfect world, but for the world that will be available to them – complete with mistakes, disappointments, failures and injustices.

Take good care of yourselves and remember that your children can handle whatever is coming their way. They are resilient and this experience will make them stronger as they grow in this world of uncertainty. Help them and help yourselves to focus on the fun, the beauty and the inspirational parts of this world. They will be better prepared for what their future holds.