As a psychologist, this is how back to school anxiety affects me

woman holding a backpack down by her legs

By Ilyse Dobrow DiMarco
@DrCBTMom

It’s 5pm on Tuesday. I’m on Hour Five of what will be six hours’ worth of therapy sessions, all of which have focused on fears about kids returning to school. Patients are asking me questions all day long that I don’t have answers to.

What do you think of homeschooling for kids?

What if my school starts and then pulls the plug at the end of the first week?

What’s riskier, sending kids to daycare, or hiring a nanny?

As a cognitive-behavioral psychologist who specializes in working with mothers, I’m no stranger to spending many consecutive hours talking through maternal anxieties. I’m usually not personally affected by the things my patients say; if anything, immersing myself in the problems of others helps me, however briefly, forget my own.

But then, my patients and I aren’t usually having the same problems at the exact same time.

Pre-COVID, I often talked with patients about the “backpacks” they carry around; that is, the traumas or significant life events they’ve experienced that stay with them and influence their day-to-day lives. Nowadays all of us, myself included, are shouldering backpacks, stuffed with the traumas of the previous weeks and months of COVID-19, plus all the uncertainties that lie ahead. My backpack feels especially heavy at the moment, full as it is not only with my own experiences and fears but also with those of my patients. As a scared mother myself, it’s been a challenge to help other scared mothers.

Whenever I hear a patient’s impassioned arguments for homeschooling her kid, I start to doubt my own decision to send my kids to school. I’ll have just gotten to the point of feeling confident about my choice, only to have a patient remind me that first graders aren’t really good at keeping masks on—and by the way didn’t I know that those plastic partitions in the classroom really do nothing? Each new piece of disconfirming evidence I hear feels like another rock being hurled into my backpack. 

And then there are the times I’m given inside information I wish I didn’t have. One patient knows someone who knows someone who knows the governor, and this person believes that they will be pulling the plug on schools at the last minute. Another patient shares new scientific evidence about how droplets of COVID-19 remain in the air for a long time. Like many people, I try hard not to follow the news in an effort to keep the upsetting information at bay. But unfortunately, the news tends to follow me, as my patients keep telling me things I didn’t want to know, filling my backpack further.

It’s also difficult to provide guidance to patients during such uncertain times. Because there are no definitive answers. I can’t tell them whether to send their kids to school or whether I think they can handle homeschooling or whether their kid will benefit from online enrichment classes. I just don’t know. And as I’m trying to advise patients, I have to remain vigilant to ensure that my own experiences—my own personal backpack—don’t unduly influence what I tell them. 

I know psychologists are not alone in any of this. Who among us hasn’t been asked to provide advice or reassurance in the face of this crisis, to a scared sister about to send her kid off to college or a grandparent desperate to see their grandchild or a neighbor questioning the school district’s decisions? All of us are being asked questions we don’t have answers to. All of us have backpacks filled with the anxieties of others.

These days, I’ve been repeatedly reminding my patients (and myself) of a core concept from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT): that we need to accept the many things we can’t change and at the same time work on those things we can. Which means that we all have to learn to live with the weight on our shoulders, even as we’re doing whatever we can (masking up our kids, social distancing, helping those in need) to move in a positive direction.

So whether or not we’re sending our kids to a physical school building, it seems like we’ll all be heading into the school year with new backpacks on. And even those of us whose job it is to help others will probably struggle to carry our own. 

All we can do as parents is accept where we are, and hope that better times are on the horizon. In the meantime, we have no choice but to try and march forward, no matter how heavy our loads.

Dr. Ilyse Dobrow DiMarco is a clinical psychologist and writer based in Summit, NJ, specializing in maternal stress and anxiety. Her 6 year-old pupil reviewed last spring’s at-home schooling experience as follows: “It’s terrible because I am frustrated with Mommy.” You can find her at DrCBTMom.com as well as @DrCBTMom on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

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