By Jennifer V. Miller
I’m looking at a photo from my eldest child’s first day of kindergarten. In it, his big brown eyes shine with anticipation as he proudly climbs the steps of the school bus, ready to embark on an exciting adventure. That photo was taken many years ago, back when we parents knew (more or less) what to expect when we sent our kids off to school. This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s way more ambiguity. Many schools across the country are still sorting out the logistics of the new school year. Our students—whether they’re starting their first day of kindergarten—or heading off to college, are going back to school during uncertain times.
Every year in August, Wisdom of the Wounded publishes tips for caring well via our Back to School page. This year, it seems fitting to add a blog post on uncertainty. Since mid-March, I’ve been telling my kids (a college sophomore and a high schooler) that we must gain comfort with the words, “I don’t know” and “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.” COVID-19, which showed up with a suitcase packed full of Uncertainty has become like a house guest who’s overstayed their welcome. Will it ever leave?
Even so, I know there is opportunity in the challenges presented by this pandemic. British statesman Benjamin Disraeli famously said, “There is no education like adversity.” So as I prepare to send my children “back to school” (whatever that looks like), here is how I will care for them and prepare them to cope with uncertain times.
One of our cornerstone principles at Wisdom of the Wounded is the Caregiving Basic of “listen.” Our ministry founder, Karen Mulder, reminds us not to try to “fix” someone’s worries, but instead just be there and listen. When my kids express worry, I’m going to wait three seconds before responding so I can fully absorb the essence of their concern. It will help me remain calm and avoid jumping in with a quick fix.
As I talk with fellow parents, it’s clear that we’re all a bit (a lot?) on edge right now. Just because we have more mileage on our Life Experience odometer doesn’t mean that we’re 100% comfortable with the uncertainty surrounding back-to-school. It’s possible your kids are feeling discomfort too. Over the next few weeks when my kids express impatience with me (or sassiness, or massive eye rolling) I will pause and remember that none of us signed up for this. But it’s the reality we’re living with. And kindness is a renewable resource, if only we remember to plug into it.
I’m a fairly optimistic person, but this pandemic has definitely got me spinning “what if’s” at an unhelpful rate. Dr. Ken Ginsburg specializes in adolescent medicine and writes that if we’re caught up in “worst case scenarios,” we need to take a pause. He tells us, “Uncertainty can make our minds race to the worst possible outcome. Catch those thoughts and say, ‘I am imagining the worst. Let me focus on what is really happening.’” Dr. Ginsburg also reminds us that youngsters sometimes assume the worst because they don’t have the life experience to know that tough times do eventually get better. If one of my kids starts to “catastrophize” a situation, I will guide them to see the reality of the situation. I will assure them, “I’m here for you, no matter what.”
My teen and young adult understand (at a conceptual level at least) that they can’t control the circumstances surrounding the pandemic. But as school schedules and re-opening guidelines rapidly shift, it’s normal to want to have some semblance of control. This Psychology Today article was helpful in reminding me to work with my kids to sort out the things that they do have agency over. In the past, when my kids have been overwhelmed or stressed, they have found it helpful for me to sit with them and together, we write a “To Do” list. For one kid, it’s helpful to do a “brain dump” and write it all down. For the other, that’s too overwhelming so we do “a little bit at a time” method and pick Top 3 Things for the Day.
Life is always going to have uncertainty. But this year? Wow! We’re on ambiguity overload. One of the best things we can do for kids going back to school this fall—no matter their age—is to help them navigate the uncertain times we’re in. They’ll gain life skills that will serve them well. Just like my son on his first day of kindergarten, they are heading off to an exciting adventure. And with our support and care, they will thrive, even if they can’t clearly see what’s around the next corner.
About the author: Jennifer V. Miller is a freelance writer and editor who manages content for the Wisdom of the Wounded team.