Dealing with the stress of back-to-school in 2020

The end of summer has always been a time of transition for families across our country. Parents and youth alike are registering for classes, buying new supplies, and wondering who their teacher will be. This summer and fall we have an added layer of concern that is plaguing us all: what is this school year going to look like?

As schools open across our nation, we have been seeing that things are going to look different in every town and city. In some instances, decisions to do home school or online school have been made for families by their districts. In other instances, there are decisions to still to be made: should we as parents send our kids to in-person school or not? And even after families have labored over these decisions and made what they hope to be “the right decision,” there is always a possibility that things can change without their input in these uncertain times, what are we to do?

As a parent and Licensed Professional Counselor, I have had a lot of time to reflect on a variety of things that affect me, my family, and my work. At first, the pandemic and its added uncertainties and responsibilities weighed heavy on me. As the summer has progressed, I have learned to see the pandemic as an opportunity to grow as a person, mother, friend, wife, and more. BUT it has not been easy.

In times of great stress, our mind plays tricks on us. Instead of operating in what we call the Wizard brain, the calm, cool, collected part of our brain, we tend to operate out of our Lizard brain, the more impulsive and reactive part. Not only is this happening in us, it is also manifesting in our children.

I have worked with youth in a variety of capacities throughout my 20 years in Colorado. I have been a director of a youth program and juvenile justice program, a substitute teacher, a volunteer coach, and more. What I absolutely love about working with youth is that they tend to be more “in the moment” than adults. The younger the child, the more present and in the moment, they seem to be, effortlessly. What an amazing natural talent! I have also come to realize that youth possess a resiliency that is admirable. I have watched many children bounce back from extremely difficult situations and, with an added solid support system, I have watched them achieve incredible feats.

As we charge forward into an uncertain new school year, I would like to offer some strategies to help you and your children with the stress and ambiguity.

  1. Increase self-awareness by taking note which brain you are operating from. If you find you are in your “Lizard Brain,” take a moment to breathe and calm yourself down before reacting. Also take note of which brain those around you seem to be operating from. If they are acting out of impulse and from a place of stress, your recognition of that can help calm the situation down. Practice creating more patience and grace for yourself and others.
  2. When speaking with your children about the present, past or future, REFLECT and REPEAT. Questions can hinder a conversation and make children second guess themselves. Instead practice reflecting or repeating back what they are saying. For example, if a child says, “I’m sad,” instead of asking why, repeat and reflect back to them with this statement “You ARE sad.” This will keep the conversation going and let your child know you understand and are listening. Most likely they will continue to explain what is going on with them, and no questions will be needed.
  3. Analyze your options in a potentially irritable or challenging situation. It is exhausting to fight reality. Radical acceptance is accepting life just as it is. Gracefully accept and acknowledge the feelings and emotions you have about certain situations.
  4. Focus on what our youth are learning from our current situation, not what they are missing out on.
  5. Anxiety and depression tend to increase when we focus on the past or fret about the future. Be here now, practice living in the present moment, and revel in it. In his book, The Power of Now: A Guide to Enlightenment, Eckhart Tolle says, “I have lived with several Zen masters… all of them cats.”
  6. Seek support when necessary for you or your family. Investigate individual and group counseling options and various support groups.

Ultimately, my goal is to help youth become independent, compassionate, and graceful critical thinkers. With these skills, they can accept and overcome the challenges that come their way, both with support and on their own. I believe our youth possess an innate wisdom that sometimes we adults forget about. This school year, let’s take pleasure in the little things, our successes, and the innovative ways we can move forward!

The Center for Mental Health is here to help. Call us at 970.252.3200 to learn about our services or make an appointment. Visit our website at to learn about the services we offer for children, families, and adults.

* * * * * * * * * *Sources

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2013). Parent-Child Interaction Therapy With At-Risk Families.

Empowering Education: Mindfulness-Social & Emotional Learning. (2016). Lizard-Wizard Brain.

Hall, K. Ph.D. (2012/7). Radical Acceptance: Sometimes Problems Can’t Be Solved. Psychology Today.

Tolle, E. The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. 2004.

Helene “H” Discoe, LPC, CAC I
The Center for Mental Health, Ridgway