On the outside, I appear to be calm about my kids going back to school. They attend a public school that is well funded and has engaged parents. Last week there was a Zoom call with over 300 participants and the general consensus among the parents is that mandatory masks, new ventilation systems, hundreds of new sanitizing stations, and 45-pages worth of initiatives cover as much as can be expected to keep students, teachers and everyone that works in the school safe.

But I still find myself waking up in the middle of the night from anxiety. I keep thinking that tomorrow night will be different, but it’s not. Part of feeling better is knowing that there are so many others feeling the exact same way. I decided that I would do a bit of research and find actions that I could take to help with the stress. Sometimes it’s about finding what works best for us as an individual, and you can only decide when you’ve read, talked, and done your research.

Nanika Coor, Psy.D. is a Brooklyn, NY based clinical psychologist who specializes in working with parents, recommends being mindful in four key areas.  I took her advice to heart and thought about specific things that I could do to ease my back-to-school anxieties.

1. BREATHE. Her first piece of advice when you are feeling stressed is to, “Stop & breathe: Stop whatever you’re doing. Pause. Take a breath. Make your exhale last as long as you can.” At first, I found this somewhat comical and basic, but the truth is it really helps. Don’t laugh, but the smell of Soap & Glory Uplifting bath products while taking a deep breath in the shower makes me happy and sets a positive vibe for the morning. I feel like I’ve rewarded myself just for being positive and making an effort to be in a good mood.

2. BE AWARE. “Check-in: Focus your awareness on your internal experience: What emotions, body sensations, and thoughts are you experiencing right at this moment? Notice with curiosity rather than self-judgment. Let whatever’s there just be there,” says Coor. The part that resonated with me is about self-judgment. So many times, moms feel that they should have it all together at home and at work and it’s the pressure, more than the activities, that make things hard. I’ve also decided to ask for help and ordered Freshly meals. I spend less time worrying and cooking, more time with my kids and husband, and therefore I feel like I did a better job. That’s the recipe for a start to less self-judgment.

3. LOOK WITH A POSITIVE LENS. Coor also recommends that parents, “Zoom out with a positive lens: Assume positive intent. What if you assumed that both you and your child are trying to get your needs met in the best way that you know how at this moment, however unproductively. Call up some compassion for you both.”  My kids want more attention and I have laundry to fold. Plus, conference calls and soon homework. We both need time and that’s why I’ve incentivized them to help with more chores. By doing things together they can feel that I am happier and calmer, and we get to crack jokes while we work. One extremely important lesson and I cannot emphasize this enough, is you cannot criticize the way they help. Just don’t do it. If they are doing it with willingness, tell them how it makes you feel. Think about the emotion and not how clean or well-folded something is done. Remember, you’re looking with a positive lens and it’s one step at a time.

4. RESPOND FIRST, THEN REACT. Coor’s last piece of advice is to “Choose the least harmful response you can: Respond rather than react. What can you do right now that brings the least amount of harm to your child’s body, mind, heart, spirit, and self-esteem?” There are a few ways that I’ve tried to implement this in my life.  First, if I feel like I’m really going to lose it, I leave the room and say that I’m coming back when I calm down. This actually is much more effective than screaming at the top of my lungs while something is happening because my kids know it’s serious and they have time to realize what just happened.

The other way I’ve used this advice is by taking something away that demonstrated that I was doing something extra because I care, not because I had to.  As an example, for a while, my kids would not stop bickering. Day in and day out it was misery. I screamed, I pleaded, and I cried. Nothing helped. Then I decided to tell them that if they continue one more time, they would have to get to school on their own. My reasoning was that I had to take time out of my day to fight the traffic and the school bus lines so that my kids would have door-to-door service. It was something that I did for them because I cared. Not because I had to. The fighting continued, I stopped driving, they took the bus, and the fighting ended. They got the point.

To me, it doesn’t matter that things have changed in terms of COVID-19. Things changed because the response was more meaningful than harmful.  Parents do things every single day that show love and care, and at a certain point, kids are able to understand that this is a shared activity.

5. GET HELP. If things seem really difficult and you are struggling, get help. It’s the most important thing that you can do for yourself and your family.  Almost everyone is having a hard time and you are not alone. Parents Anonymous is a family strengthening organization and has added resources to help during the pandemic.

This is my place to start and it might change in the weeks ahead. But, I’m already starting to feel calmer.