Should you send your kid(s) back to school this fall? It’s a question parents across Canada are struggling to answer amidst the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s so important to recognize there is no right choice,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Khush Amaria, PhD, CPsych, senior clinical director with BEACON digital therapy. “What families choose will vary; this is not a time to compare.” Amaria emphasizes that whatever decision you make is not set in stone. As new information becomes available, you might change your mind – and that’s ok. “What you choose now, it’s not forever,” she says. “We want people to make an informed choice recognizing that they can change it at any point.” We spoke to Amaria, who practices cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), about how to make a decision in the face of ambiguity, balancing personal and community needs and managing feelings of guilt, anger and frustration around making difficult decisions.
There is no perfect answer to the question of whether or not you should send your kids back to school, but having to make the decision can still be anxiety-inducing. What general suggestions do you give someone who has to make a hard choice?
The first thing has to be to validate that these are difficult decisions. We do expect people to have a certain level of stress and anxiety when they’re trying to make difficult decisions – that’s normal. Everybody recognizes that there’s no risk-free solution right now. There’s the medical side and there’s the safety side of it. But also from a psychological perspective, there’s no risk-free solution for teens and kids in terms of their social development. I would encourage people to prime their values – what really matters to them? When people make decisions with their values in mind, they tend to feel more satisfied and less stressed. For example, if you really do value social development and kids’ connectedness, you may decide that you’ll weigh the risks and think about what’s the safest way to have your kid go back to school. But if you really value academics and you feel like you’d have better control of that if your child was at home, you might make the choice based on that.
There’s the struggle to decide what’s best for your own family, but then there’s the community piece of this as well. A lot of people are also thinking about, Well, if I don’t send my kids back to school, how will it affect other families?
This is a tough scenario. We keep talking about the need for PPE (personal protective equipment), but we also have to be building our EPE – our emotional protective equipment. It’s the idea that we need to invest in ourselves. We talked so much about building our resiliency – and most of us, including children – have been very resilient over the last five months. We’ve adapted in ways we never expected. We’ve learned new skills and connected in new ways to people.
What suggestions do you have for parents who might be experiencing guilt or anger about their choices or lack thereof?
I would remind people that, from a psychological perspective, feelings like guilt and anger only really hurt us. From a cognitive behavioral therapy model, you encourage people to stop and go, “Where is this anger or guilt coming from? What are my thoughts about this?” When people have guilt and anger, there’s usually some distortion in their thinking or there’s some very extreme thinking, and that’s not healthy. It’s not to say that we are not going to have some level of guilt or some of that anger, but we probably don’t need it to be so intense if it’s interrupting our ability to function. We can minimize or reduce the strength of that feeling because, again, it’s only going to interfere with our functioning. There’s no real utility to it. It’s going to get in the way. It’s not the thing that’s going to solve some of these issues.
What are some of the steps that people can take to reduce some of those feelings?
We talked so much about the importance of stress management techniques from a psychological and physiological perspective right from the beginning of the pandemic. I’ve been reminding people quite often that now’s not the time to let go of those techniques, it’s the time to really ramp up and adjust those stress management skills. That [includes] investing in self-care, which does not have to be anything fancy. We can’t give up things like having some relaxation time and practicing checking your expectations: What are the standards you have for yourself? Where’s that work-life balance? We want to focus on what we have control of. If we can build control in certain areas, then the areas where we have that uncertainty, we could feel less stressed about that. It’s really about making sure you have time to yourself to be able to recharge, doing a self-check on your level of anxiety and worry. If it feels like it’s getting out of control, if it’s there every day, all the time and you’re not being able to function as well, that’s the time to reach out for more intensive help.
How should you talk to your kids who may also be feeling stress about returning to school?
The first thing is that we can’t make assumptions as parents that we understand what our kids are feeling. We have to talk to them about it and we have to practice talking to them about what we’re feeling. We’re training them to know their feelings – meaning if they’re scared of something, [we teach them] to name what they’re scared of. We really want to get them to learn that our adjustment is not something we’re going to do overnight. We’re going to practice, just as kids are practicing wearing masks regularly. They all know how to wash their hands for 20 seconds. We trained our kids to do that; it’s very normal for them right now. We want to encourage parents to have those regular conversations and to use reward and positive attention whenever kids are on the right track.
I also encourage parents to really be paying attention to signs of distress in children. Typically what we’re watching out for is a remarkable change from what’s normal for them in terms of their behaviour and usual routines, sleep patterns, eating, those types of things. If parents start with an open communication plan and allow their kids to really share what they’re feeling and validate what they’re feeling – you don’t always have to fix it, just validate it – then children will get better at being able to share what’s going on. And then parents and kids can collaborate together about what some solutions are.
What else should we know about decision making?
It is okay to have conversations with your friends and family and to get input. We also have think that that, yes, we are all in it together, but we need to give ourselves permission to make the decision that feels right for us, even if you feel like others might reject it or judge you for it. Here’s a time to really be feeling confident that you’re allowed to make a decision that feels right in that moment for you and your kids. Know that even leaders in the field will have different viewpoints and opinions about what they are doing. The right way to make this decision is to be as informed as you can, weigh your pros and cons, look at the risk factors and maybe start with something – you’re allowed to change your mind. A hard part about making a decision is fearing that we’ll regret it or we’ll have made the wrong one – and we can’t right now, because we had just have to make the best of a bad situation.
I feel like the judgement factor, what others will think of their decision, is a big block for people.
Absolutely. I would urge people, if they’re not sure how to handle this, to go back to some point in their life where they probably did something that was really the right thing for them to do. They were happy with what they chose and people didn’t like it, whether it’s a bad haircut or moving across the country with a bad boyfriend. Reflect on that. Go back to the skills and your resiliency bank that you might have and think, “How have I handled this before? What did I do? Can I use any of those same techniques?”
Say you decide to send your kid back to school, it’s not working, you pull them back and then that’s not working. Is there a downside to flip-flopping?
We go back to that idea of planning. When you make your plan, stress flexibility. You’re saying, “We are going to trial this, then if it’s hard, we can make changes and try and do something better.” We do that all the time: kids switch classes, parents switch jobs and we think it’s okay. We don’t want fear to be driving our decision making, we want it to be based on prioritizing what’s important to us and weighing pros and cons. People who worry tend to have poor problem-solving skills. There are so many great CBT strategies about how to truly solve a problem. You start by making it very narrow: What is the problem that I’m trying to fix? Then you start looking at all the options, even the silly and ridiculous one, and you put them all down and you weigh those pros and cons. Then you start with the first solution, and it may not work and you might have to go to number two.
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