3 Ways to Set the Emotional Tone for the New School Year

I know I’m not alone in thinking this school year would be sort of back to normal. But it’s not over yet and many believe it won’t ever be. We are in a new reality that we first believed temporary. Our kids are going back to school but this year with no option for remote learning. In some parts of the country that may seem fine, but in other parts parents feel like they’re throwing their kids to the wolves.

Masked school kids

What kids care about is their own experience. Navigating masks and relationships back at school can be tricky for kids wondering where they stand. Friendships are likely shifting leaving hurt and unhappiness for many. Some kids are fine with masks and forget they are wearing them. Some are hypervigilant and feel unsafe if others are unmasked. And some are sensitive to masks or are simply resistant. Some worry about getting exposed. Does that mean quarantine, missing school, bringing Covid home, getting sick, ending up remote?

While they have their own physical and emotional responses to the situation, children are highly influenced by their parents’ reactions and responses to this year’s new and changing protocols. All of which affects how they manage their experiences.

While we are not living in ‘normal’ times—or are we?—your children will do better the more you normalize the situation. In other words, your anger, worry, and fear about Covid, vaccines, masks, and school policies will have a major effect on how your children experience their world. Your emotions and behaviors inform your children what to think and feel. I don’t mean don’t have opinions. Have them, share them, encourage your children’s opinions. Talk, talk, talk. But when your fears drive your behavior, and perhaps keep you silent, you can pass your fears on to your children in ways you don’t intend.

Here are some tips on how to support your children’s experience:

  • Don’t ask questions. Questions like, “Are you nervous about getting back to school and seeing your friends?” might be met with a shrug, a roll of the eyes, or a response that may be far from the truth. Kids feel set up with questions—there’s an expectation at play and they feel on the spot to meet it. So you might get a simple ‘no’. Where do you go from there? Try making a statement that doesn’t require an answer. “I sure never had a situation growing up like you have. I was thinking about what it might feel like to get back into school nowadays. I can imagine that it might be rather tricky, and I might feel a bit insecure about how to handle myself.”

When you simply wonder out loud, no answer is required, so you are more likely to get a response and a truthful one. Even a “Yeah it is kind of tricky” gives you room to grow. Your response, “I wonder if I would feel awkward or just fine.” Then questions can work. “Are you more in the awkward or just fine end of the spectrum?” “Where do you think Sam and Ben are between nervous and perfectly okay?” “How do you think the school mask policy is working? Do kids take it seriously or are some resisting?” “Do you feel okay around kids not wearing masks?” Of course, your questions may differ. The important piece is to stay away from questions until you have connection.

  • You may hear dramatic emotions about friendships. Resist coming on with your opinion about what your child should do. Trust her and her feelings even when you think she’s being ridiculous! “It’s got to be so hard to think your best friend doesn’t like you. I bet you feel very alone.” Connect first. Let all those ugly but necessary emotions come out. Then you can move into problem solving. “What would you like to do about it?” “What do you wish you could say to her?” “How do you think she would respond?” “What is it you want her to know about how you feel?”

It’s your guidance rather than your direction that will help your children feel capable of handling tough situations. Your job is to be there to listen, hold and comfort, and have trust in your child’s capability.

  • If your child is struggling and resisting or refusing to go to school, use his behavior as your cue to how he is feeling and don’t react to his resistance. Instead of pushing or trying to make him see it your way, listen to his complaints. “I’m not going. Nobody likes me. I hate it there and you can’t make me go.” He’s got to use drama to make sure he gets your attention. Give it. Let him vent. But interpret his words. Don’t take them personally or at face value. Connect with emotion beneath that is causing the words. “Sounds to me like things aren’t going too well. I imagine it doesn’t feel the same as it used to.” Period. That kind of emotional reflection of what he has said tells him you get it and you’re listening. Then he will continue and may even break down in tears. At this point you will hear the problem. It may have nothing to do with school.

The older your child the more likely she will hold her emotions close. Be patient, give her time. She may take her frustrations out on you. Try not to take it personally. It means you are her safe space. Look for those windows of opportunity—perhaps in a car or on a walk. Definitely without eye contact. Maybe texting works best.

We are so intent on trying to make our kids feel better or do what we think they should do that we miss the boat on connecting and being patient by just listening and not jumping into advice, questions, and direction. Nobody likes being told what to do. But everybody likes being heard and acknowledged. It is from this place your influence is felt and you can make great gains with your children.