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Advice to parents prepping for a new school year with kids at home: Give yourself a break

Parent's and Children's Mental Health

If you’re a parent of a school-age child you may be shaking your head right about now, wondering how you’ll survive another few months, maybe a whole school year, of remote learning.

Cynthia Whitham, LCSW, co-director of the Parenting & Children’s Friendship Program in the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, understands your concern.

“The fact we can’t let our kids back into school is huge – our bedrock is completely shattered,” Whitham says. “Anyone who has had kids at home since April is dying to have them back in school in the fall.”

One key to surviving this uncertain time, Whitham says, is for parents to acknowledge they can’t do everything and to be easy on themselves.

“Parents need to take care of themselves. A lot of the time they are just pulling their hair out and feeling dreadfully self-critical and guilty,” she says. “They did not major in education. This was not their plan.”

As parents brace for an immediate future of schooling at home, though, structure will play an important role, says Psychologist Shilpa Baweja, PhD, LCSW, co-director of the Parenting & Children’s Friendship Program.

“Talk to your kids about what to expect over the next month or two, and then put in place some structure. When kids know what’s happening each day, it settles them, both emotionally and behaviorally,” Baweja says.

And if that schedule unravels on a given day, it’s not a big deal, Whitham says. It’s perfectly fine to move on to a Plan B. “Parents need to know that it’s OK to suddenly declare school is over for the day and say, ‘Let’s all climb up on the bed and eat popcorn and play a card game.’”

This is not the time for parents to aim for perfection; they should aim for “good enough,” says Baweja.

“We’re definitely living in a society where there’s a parenting model that you have to be constantly teaching them something. But this is not the time to add more to your plate as a parent,” she says. “It’s OK to loosen your approach and teach them to do more independent play, give them more screen time if you need to. You can protect your time that way.”

Whitham advises parents to take this time with their children to learn more about them and help them develop their self-esteem.

“We’re focused so much on school, the goals they’re supposed to be making, concerned they are falling behind,” she says. “I keep in mind that some children’s sense of happiness may come from academics, but others’ self-esteem may come from different areas of competence, his or her other talents. This is a time to explore those things. This is the time to observe them and figure out what piques my child’s curiosity. What other interests might they have or discover? Art, science experiments, photography, wood working, music, astronomy, geology?”

Baweja and Whitham typically offer a 10-week training program for parents of children with behavioral issues. The classes cover such skills as improving family communication, setting limits on unsafe or oppositional behaviors, and creating calm routines for morning and bedtime, which tend to be troublesome times for children.

Since late March, those classes have moved to Zoom, so they can be attended remotely during the pandemic.

“There are some families that really benefit from in-person classes – we do a lot of demonstrations and role plays,” Baweja says. “But we were surprised at how well we were able to adapt the program to be delivered through Zoom.”

In the post-pandemic future, she says, classes likely will be offered in person and via Zoom.

“We have families logging into the class from quite a distance,” Baweja says. “Also, we’re noticing that where before we’d have one parent coming to the group, now we’re seeing both. So it has really opened up access.”


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