Anxiety and the Pandemic: How Parents Can Cope While Sending Children Back to School

You, as parents, serve as the critical link in the bicycle chain of getting our educational system back on the road during this crisis, both for our nation and for our families. When you brought your child into this world, you accepted the vocation of parenting: to be loving, conscientious caretakers and leaders in your child’s life, both during your child’s earthly travel and, through Christ, into eternity. Without the Spirit’s presence and your understanding, commitment, sacrifice, and hope for your children, this quest to restart our lives and economy safely won’t be successful. Although there is enough anxiety for all within this chain, that of parents is perhaps the hardest to recognize or, at least to accept. I can guarantee your anxiety is observed easily by your children and is highly palpable in the planning of your school’s teachers and administrators.

Parental Anxiety as School Starts Amid the Pandemic

Anxiety, parental or otherwise, is a preset human response to the rapid changes in the normal patterns of life and work brought on by any alteration in one’s perception of the risks and rewards of choices faced daily. As I mentioned in the first article in this series, our default setting to rapid change is to fall back into behaviors and strategies stored in our memory bank that we have relied on in the past when facing dilemmas—stressing out! It is our “old Adam” organizing principle; it focuses our energy on helping ME, calming ME, reducing my own anxiety at all costs.

The Word made flesh, our loving Savior, calls us to a different posture and gives us His Spirit to guide and grow us toward a different organizing principle to face the challenges of the world: WE, reflecting the presence of Jesus within our lives through our baptismal identity as His child; WE, binding ourselves to the Trinity; WE, holding our relationships with our children, their teachers, and our faith community as a sacred trust to work creatively, adaptably, and collaboratively to care for Jesus’ little lambs. Those lambs include us as parents. 

Naming the Challenges 

How do we faithfully and effectively deal with our own stress and anxiety as parents? Perhaps the first step is to place a few names on the challenges:

  • The landscape of our educational system is drastically altered. Many campuses are reconfigured or closed; distance learning (virtual and online) is the new normal for many students, though some will still experience in-person, pen-and-paper learning.
  • The socialization of our children with other children may be substantially diminished. The way our children play, work, learn, and interact with others might give way to the fear of contagious spread of an unseen illness. The physical appearance of our playmates covered in PPEs (personal protective equipment) limits children’s freedom of communication and interaction.
  • This viral pandemic is not based in false worry or fear; this is a real-life, serious illness affecting millions of people, and with life-altering or life-limiting consequences.
  • The ramifications of an altered educational system on learning and development include the alteration in our families’ resources and economics. Without the schools providing education and safe daycare, both one- and two-parent homes may be drastically altered or harmed—especially if one or both of the parents have lost their job or have to alter their work to care for and educate their children at home. Clearly, these are enormous challenges that will affect the full reopening of our national and world economies.
  • Health safety measures (masks, handwashing, social distancing) are the new normal social etiquette for the foreseeable future.

Navigating Stress and Anxiety as Parents

Where do we start to deal with our own parental anxiety in this perfect storm? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Understand the facts about the pandemic. I’ve started a list above, but it is important to be up-to-date about the health information being shared; rely, as much as possible, on credible information resources. Frankly, I have far more trust in the conscientious physicians, nurses, public health officials, and scientifically trained medical leaders in our society than I do in politicians.
  • Having said that, parents need to pray for our societal leaders. Making decisions that balance public health and safety with the economic viability of our society is extraordinarily difficult; I do not envy their responsibility.
  • Stay updated with the protocols for your child’s school. Understand that plans may change frequently based on new information or threats. Know that you are facing these changes with other concerned parents and teachers and that God is, indeed, present and active within this crisis. Call upon Him in prayer.
  • Model creativity, flexibility, and patience to your children. More than ever, they are watching you and your reaction and proactivity in this crisis.
  • Understand, teach, and follow safe best practices to reduce exposure of the virus to your family. Have handwashing, social distancing, good hygiene (covering the mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing into a bent elbow), and temperature monitoring practices within your home so your children are familiar with them and do not just experience these outside the home.
  • Share your feelings openly with your children and assure them of the importance of their being honest with you. Talk with your children, especially if they are older, to determine if they are ready, reluctant, or eager to return to school. Do they miss their teachers or friends? Do they prefer learning in a group setting? Or are they comfortable learning alone?
  • Most important, assess whether your children are dealing with clinically significant anxiety or depression related to this pandemic. If you determine that their mood, physical health, eating, sleeping, or bathroom habits are significantly altered, seek professional help through their school, your church, or their physician.
  • Remember that you need to also consider a backup plan, as your school may have to close its doors again as the year progresses; then your child would have to return to distance learning. Although it may be difficult to develop an alternate plan for education and care, it will substantially reduce your anxiety if you have pre-considered a few legitimate and workable alternatives—just in case.
  • Make sure you understand your state and federal laws dealing with absenteeism in a pandemic. Is it lawfully permissible to distance-learn under a set of measurement parameters? What are those measurements or testing guidelines?
  • It is absolutely essential to manage your emotional wellbeing: exercise regularly, eat nutritionally, rest properly, be in prayer and meditation on God’s Word. If you find (or if others recognize in you) alteration in your normal wellbeing, such as sleep or eating disturbances, excessive headaches or stomachaches, irritability, or feelings of unremitting sadness, seek help, both from mental-health professionals and from spiritual-health guardians, such as your pastor and faith community.

Your child and, most likely, your child’s teachers, are seeing you as a critical link in the health and well-being of our society now and into the future. God has promised to walk this path with us; you are not alone.

Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand. Isaiah 41:10

God’s Word explains how He wants families to live in well-rounded health.

Strive for multifaceted wellness

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Written by

John D. Eckrich

John D. Eckrich, MD, is a board-certified internist and gastroenterologist in St. Louis, as well as founder of Grace Place Wellness Ministries, a recognized service organization of the LCMS that is focused on the bodily, mental, and spiritual wellness of professional church workers. He is an author and nationally recognized speaker on health and wellness. His book Family Wellness: Raising Resilient Christ-Purposed Children will be published by CPH late this summer as a wellness resource and textbook for families.

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