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Back to School Survival Strategy

Help your kids reduce their anxiety with mindfulness

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It’s back to school time. But now it’s really, actually, back to school time for a lot of adolescents for the first time in 18 months.

This fall many kids will be going back for the first time to full-time, non-hybrid, non-remote, sitting at desks, next to other kids, some places without masks, in classes, in cafeterias, in auditoriums and playing fields.

And for more kids than ever, that means back to anxiety, and more of it as we adjust to the new normal. Afterall, we haven’t had the practice of being together in this way for quite some time.

This fall, I’m so excited to be offering the second edition of Growing Up Mindful, which walks parents, teachers, therapists through a step-by-step process of introducing mindfulness to the kids and teens you work with or live with. At home and with family, at school with classmates and teachers, and of course in social lives and performance situations as well.

One of the things anxious kids and teens (and us adults too!) do a lot is listen to, and believe, that critical anxious voice. You know the one. We are all familiar. It’s the one that says:

“There’s no way I can raise my hand to speak in actual class when we go back.”
“Everyone’s gonna think I’m weird because I’m two feet taller than I was last March when school shut down.”
“The soccer team is gonna get smeared because we didn’t practice this year nearly as much as the rival town.”

Guess what, have you ever seen that bumper sticker that says “don’t believe everything you think?”

It’s actually true, and some good advice too. For the kids or teens in your life, that critical voice has probably not had any good reality checks from friends since March 2020, and so has only gotten louder, and sounds even more real than ever.

But that still doesn’t mean it’s right. It doesn’t mean it’s wrong either, but it very well might be. This helps us remember that our anxious brains aren’t always right. What a relief!

I want to encourage you to try this mindful mindset practice, some people call this a kind of a “mindfulness without meditation” practice that might help the kids you work with (or yourself and your colleagues!) as you go back to school in person.
First, write down a few of those worried thoughts from some adolescents you’ve talked to. And don’t think this only applies to youth! Maybe you’ve had some similar thoughts or worries.

For example:

Youth: I’ll get back to school and my friends won’t want to be my friends anymore.
Adult: I’ll get back to the office and it’s going to be a different crowd after the budget cuts earlier this year.

Youth:
People are not going to like the new haircut I got this year!
I’m going to get made fun of since my voice changed and I hit puberty in the last eighteen months and am, like, a foot taller!
I’m going to get a new variant of COVID.
I have forgotten how to socialize and make small talk!
I’ve been wearing sweatpants to zoom school and I don’t know what sneakers or jeans are cool anymore!
My teachers are going to be a lot harder again now that we are back in person!

This might be a great exercise to do with your own child or student, if you sense they are having a hard time. It helps to practice it yourself first by writing your own personal top five playlist of back-to-school or back-to-work related worries.
So, what if you could remind yourself that all these stories you’re telling yourself are just thoughts, not necessarily reality? This is far easier said than done, of course, but you could start by putting the words I’m having the thought that… in front of every anxious thought you wrote above?

 

For the kids or teens in your life, that might look something like this:

I’m having the thought that I’ll get back to school and my friends won’t want to be my friends anymore.
I’m having the thought that people are not going to like the new haircut I got this year!
I’m having the thought that I’m going to get made fun of since my voice changed and I hit puberty in the last eighteen months and am, like, an entire foot taller!
I’m having the thought that I’m going to get a new variant of COVID.
I’m having the thought that I have forgotten how to socialize and make small talk!
I’m having the thought that I’ve been wearing sweatpants to zoom school and I don’t know what sneakers or jeans are cool anymore!
I’m having the thought that My teachers are going to be a lot harder again now that we are back in person!

Take some time with the youth in your life, to read this list over again with the new addition. Maybe encourage them to read the list a bit more mindfully this time, allowing the words to sink in?

While this exercise may not completely annihilate every anxious thought in your child’s mind as school approaches, it can start to take some of the sting out. Afterall, just like the best students back in school, we are aiming for progress not perfection!

Dr. Christopher Willard
Psychologist, Harvard Medical School
Author of 18 books on Mindfulness and Parenting

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