By Pooja Lakshmin|July 29, 2020
"While parents may be feeling unsure about school options this fall, there are ways to feel better as you make the tough decision."
"A combination of dread, panic and sheer exhaustion. This is what I see on the faces of patients (and friends and colleagues) when the conversation turns to the most pressing topic on every parent’s mind: what to do about school in the fall. I’m a psychiatrist specializing in women’s mental health, and I have yet to speak to anyone who feels satisfied with the options presented to them, or who feels particularly confident in the choices they’ve made.
The information on children and the coronavirus has been evolving since March, with the most recent data suggesting that children are less likely to become infected by the virus and less likely to have a severe course when infected. But, those words “less likely” suggest that children are at some, albeit smaller, risk. And, the United States still has not come up with an adequate solution to protect teachers, many of whom are high risk.
As I see it, school stress for parents boils down to two main points: Deciding what to do, and then what to do with the uncomfortable feelings that could arise after that decision. As a psychiatrist, I’m admittedly not so helpful when it comes to the decision of whether or not to send your kids to in-classroom learning this fall. Where I can help is how to deal with the uncertainty and difficult feelings that accompany this process.
A risk assessment system, like the one described by Emily Oster, Ph.D., a professor of economics and public policy at Brown University, can be a useful guide when making decisions with scarce data. Instead of focusing on the illusion of “one right answer,” this framework can give you a reliable process for making hard parenting decisions by focusing on evaluating and mitigating risks, and assessing benefits. While no parent is feeling particularly confident about the school options available to them, it is possible to feel good about the process you use to make those decisions.
In an interview, Dr. Oster wrote, “By making clear the choices, the costs and benefits, we can reason our way to better decisions. But I really think even more important is the fact that we can make our way to more confidence in these decisions by articulating a good process.”
Once you’ve delineated a plan, then you’re faced with the task of coping with the onslaught of feelings, like worry, guilt, fear and uncertainty. For this, here are some strategies, many of which come from acceptance and commitment therapy, a form of behavioral therapy that teaches people to accept their difficult thoughts and feelings as opposed to struggling against them, and to prioritize taking actions that are in line with their values."