Guest post by Michele Mannering, PhD, Psychologist 🧠 Mom 😘 Runner 🏃♀️
The feeling you get as Memorial Day approaches is typically blissful: days are longer, school is winding down, and vacation is on the horizon. Kids are equally excited for the days ahead: no school, no homework, and counting down the days until summer camp. And in the days leading up to summer, the last thing anyone wants to think about is schoolwork that still needs to be done. What do we do when the end of school slump hits, but more importantly, what do we do when we are also amidst unprecedented times and parents are acting as co-teachers instead of just the nagging voice reminding kids to get their work done?
Let’s be honest. Kids are tired. Parents are tired. No one had time to prepare for a total upheaval of our day to day life. Little eyes aren’t used to looking at screens. Parents are trying to work and be teachers at the same time. Children of all ages do best with predictability, schedule, and routine, and parents cannot replicate that no matter how many color coded schedules they try: Zoom is not the classroom most kids are used to and playdates are not done via Facetime.
So as we plow (or drag) through the final history paper or book report, pay attention to the cues that your child is giving off. Some kids may still be OK to make a checklist for what needs to be completed each day. Others may be able to get tasks done only with a visual reminder that this is the home stretch. And then there are some kids who have struggled with the transition to being at home and are simply out of steam. It’s OK to be out of steam: those kids may need more breaks, they may need their schedule reworked, or an alternative plan may need to be constructed because they are exhausted by emotionality. It is detrimental to try to make the child who is out of steam just “push through” or “just get it done.” Their feelings have to be acknowledged and validated: this is a lot for a still developing brain to try to process. Children and adolescents experience the same emotions that adults experience in response to the pandemic: they may be angry, sad, frustrated and tired. Parents need to be mindful of it more negative emotionality is dominating for the child.
Kids are also picking up on stress that parents are naturally eliciting. In addition to the expected worries about health, finances and safety, many parents are desperately worried that their children will fall behind academically. And many teenagers are worried what these changes will mean for their GPAs, their resumes, and their college prospects. At some point, we have to remind ourselves (and our children) that this situation is not unique: almost all schools are out of session, sports are cancelled, and there are no resume boosters to be had.
Worrying about all of these implications for our kids’ education helps give us a distraction from other worries popping into our heads. Uncertainty is hard to tolerate, and it seems as though there is uncertainty in every direction we look. We can try to make a plan for the next school year, but at the end of the day, it is just more uncertainty.
One thing is certain, though. At some point, children will return to the classroom. Whenever that day is, students will not just return to a brick building and pick up where they left off. We aren’t in the pause cycle of the DVR – we aren’t going back to the scene we were in: things will be markedly different and we will be very different, too. It will be a lot for even the most well adjusted person to handle. In thinking and hoping that we will achieve a level of wellness that makes it safe for our children to return to school, let’s focus on keeping them emotionally well until then. They may not always be able to verbalize their emotions, and so it may come out in other ways. Being in tune to these signs outweighs an extra few minutes studying or scheduling another tutoring session.
As the school year wraps up, we are also up against another transition that children have not experienced: a summer without some camps and uncertainty about vacation plans or even if swimming pools will open. This will mean more free time at home with less to do. While our instinct may be to try to make sure that kids are meeting academic benchmarks, that cannot be the top priority. Children’s emotional well being has to be monitored and protected during these unprecedented times. The academics can be worked out in due time.
As we say goodbye to the Zoom classroom, think about your child’s mood, energy level, behavior. We don’t have a set of statistics to help guide how children are faring because most have likely never experienced this degree of turbulence. Everyone is behaving differently as they adjust to whatever this new normal may be, and it’s reasonable to reach out even if you have noticed small changes and want to be proactive. If you have noticed signs in your child that are beyond a bad day here or there, it is worth reaching out to your pediatrician or therapist (if you have one). Things to be on the lookout for in your child/teenager include:
- more time isolated from family
- increased irritability
- low energy
- loss of interest in things
- more externalizing behavior (i.e., tantrums, crying, yelling)
- and/or persistent negativity.
Please also feel free to reach out to our office if you have questions about your child that you want to talk through.
Michele Mannering, PhD, is a licensed psychologist in Charlotte, NC. Her practice is dedicated to psycholeducational and neuropsychological testing for children and adolescents. In addition, Dr. Mannering sees children and adolescents for treatment of anxiety disorders, notably around school and academic anxiety. She also works with teenagers with learning disabilities, psychiatric disabilities and medical conditions in making the transition from high school services to college based resources.