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CBT Tips for a Different Back-to-School

Heading back to school will certainly be a bit different this year. Families are likely to feel a mix of emotions while trying to adapt to changes with school, work, and everyday life. Here are some tips for navigating the transition into the 2020 school year. They are all based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) principles, which focus on making changes in the here-and-now.

1. Whether your children are heading back to school for in-person learning, virtual learning, or a mix of both, sticking to a routine before and after school will be helpful. Having a daily routine in the morning and before bedtime will provide children (and parents) with a sense of predictability and safety.

2. Encourage open communication at home. Try to help your children label their emotions and validate their feelings (“It’s okay that you are feeling nervous to go back to school,” or “Your school is doing everything possible to make sure everyone is safe, but I understand that you are still feeling scared”). This will provide your children with an opportunity to vent their frustrations in a safe environment, free from judgment.

3. Model positive coping behaviors as parents. Try to talk through emotions together and brainstorm a few coping tools that everyone can use at home. Consider using relaxation and self-care techniques such as deep breathing, coloring, watching a funny movie, walking outside, and listening to music. If your child sees you engaging in these activities, they are more likely to employ them as well.

4. Practice wearing masks at home. You can help model to your children that wearing a mask isn’t scary, and that masks are meant to keep everyone safe. It may also be helpful to practice speaking and breathing with a mask so children feel comfortable asking questions and speaking up at school.

5. Discuss what we do know (i.e., school will be in person three times a week and everyone will wear a mask) vs. what we don’t know (i.e., whether school will have to change the plan depending on infection rates). It is okay to practice “leaning into the uncertainty” of what the rest of the school year will look like. An effective script may sound something like, “Right now we know___ and we don’t know ___, and that’s okay.”

6. Provide praise and practice compassion towards one another. Verbal praise for completing homework, helping around the house, or making it through a tough week are needed now more than ever! Reminding family members that they will always have your love and support can be extremely impactful during times of uncertainty.

7. Recognize how negative and/or irrational thinking might be affecting how you and your family members are feeling. Examples include fortunetelling (e.g. “My children aren’t going to learn anything this school year”), catastrophizing (e.g. “This is impossible and I can’t handle it!” ) and black-or-white thinking (e.g. “If things don’t go exactly as planned, then what’s the point?” ). When you notice these patterns of thinking, try to restructure your thoughts (or encourage your loved one to restructure their thoughts) to beliefs that are rational and based on factual evidence. This cognitive restructuring is extremely effective in decreasing anxiety/worry and improving one’s overall mood.

8. Look out for signs and symptoms of more serious mental health problems. Although it is perfectly normal to have a difficult time adjusting to changes in the school year, some responses require more serious attention. If you notice that you or your family member are exhibiting symptoms such as significant changes in sleep or appetite, frequent crying, suicidal thoughts, panic attacks, obsessive thinking, or social withdrawal, consider enlisting a mental health professional. Utilize resources available to you, such as school counselors and psychologists in your community. Most therapists are now offering telehealth options, which provide a safe and convenient means for addressing mental health needs.

If you or someone you know requires therapy at this time, feel free to contact Grand Central Psychology at (212) 696 1355 or for a free phone consultation. We would be happy to connect you with a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

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