Regardless of how early families start preparing for the start of a new school year, there never seems to be enough time to stop back to school stress from affecting kids of all ages and their parents. Articles typically abound this time of year with stress-busting tips and strategies. As a psychologist, I’ve written more than a dozen of these articles, and although I do believe traditional stress reducing strategies (e.g., breathing, relaxation, and pacing) are helpful, we all know that the stress facing our kids and parents this year is different. I doubt you need a psychologist to tell you that there’s no magical stress-busting strategy that can make starting school in the midst of a global pandemic easy. Instead, allow this psychologist to offer a different strategy: Stop wasting time trying to kick stress to the curb.
Focusing only on getting rid of stress will not necessarily make families feel happier, calmer, or more purposeful, and it may not be possible right now with what 2020 has thrown at us. Reducing sadness doesn’t automatically generate happiness. Decreasing anger doesn’t cultivate a sense of peace. Negative and positive emotions are not simply two ends of the same spectrum, which means that reducing stress alone will not inevitably bring joy, excitement, and meaning to a family unit. This is great news because it means that stress doesn’t have to go away to foster a peaceful, joyful, purposeful environment in your home. This school year, I urge you to send your kids the message that they can help create a happy, meaningful, and peaceful environment in the midst of a stressful time by teaching them to focus on creating a balance between stressful and positive experiences.
Follow these simple tips to get started:
- Focus on using words at home that help good things grow.
If you want the school year to be an exciting time for kids to focus on learning, growing, and developing, talk about it this way. At the dinner table, ask your kids what they’re most looking forward to in their classes. When kids talk about the school year, respond with comments of excitement and encouragement (e.g., “That sounds interesting.” “What an exciting opportunity!”)
- Plan enjoyable, meaningful activities after the school year starts.
When school stress hits, planning enjoyable family activities, especially in the midst of social distancing recommendations, is even more important. Set aside time to make a fun family meal together one night per week. Plan a family movie night or game night once a month. Scheduling an enjoyable activity in addition to homework and chores sends the message that balance matters.
- Lead by example.
Kids do as parents do. When parents run 100mph with no break or obsess over negative events in the news, kids learn that this is healthy, acceptable, and necessary for success. However, psychological research has repeatedly shown that taking time to infuse positive experiences, including time for enjoyable activities and rejuvenation, into your schedule increases motivation, efficiency, resilience and productivity. Don’t wait for calm and joy to magically appear. Generate space for you and your family to experience these emotions together. Highlight what you enjoy about work and help your kids identify how rewarding learning can be.
This school year, allow chaos and calm, stress and joy, fear and hope to join together in your home. Instead of exhausting ourselves trying to rid life of the bad, let’s spend that energy building, creating, and promoting the good. Foster balance between stress and rejuvenation and send kids the empowering message that it’s possible to learn, grow and find joy and meaning – even in 2020.
(Dr. Tara Feil is a clinical psychologist with Archway Mental Health Services at CHI St. Alexius Health in Bismarck, ND. She provides psychotherapy for individuals with a range of mental health concerns and enjoys speaking to community groups and organizations about science-based ways to increase well-being and maximize personal and professional success.)