Healthline’s recent survey proves what we all already know: School uncertainty created a mental health crisis for American parents.

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Jessica Byrum/Stocksy United

Back-to-school season often comes with a rush of different emotions for parents. This year, like so much else, these emotions have been pushed to the extreme.

The usual anxieties about our children’s learning, friendships, and lunches are compounded by fears for their health — both physical and mental — in the age of COVID-19.

As classrooms started to open late this summer, there were — and continue to be — massive uncertainties over the safety of in-person learning, and how long it will last.

If this has been causing you stress, you’re not alone. Healthline’s survey of more than 2,000 American parents shows that the majority have been feeling overwhelmed by the decisions and uncertainty surrounding school reopening.

The survey was conducted online by Propeller Insights on behalf of Healthline from June 16–19, 2020. Survey responses were nationally representative of the U.S. population for age, gender, region, and ethnicity.

And across the board, the survey makes clear that most parents feel more stressed by this year’s back-to-school season than ever before.

As well as missing out on valuable learning time, kids have been missing their friends and normal routine. A full 75% of the parents surveyed feel that returning to school in-person would be better for their child’s mental health.

While mostly confined to the house, 31% of parents notice their kids are feeling more socially isolated, 19% percent think they seem depressed, and 17% say their kids are more argumentative than usual. That’s a lot of children struggling.

Physical health is also an issue. Parents have concerns about the amount of screen time (36%) and junk food (24%) their kids are consuming.

Attempting to maintain a kind of normalcy is wearing parents out, too — 60% say that facilitating their child’s remote learning adds significant stress to their day.

Still, most parents are unsure if they feel it’s safe to send their kids back to school in person. Only 10% of the surveyed parents are definitely comfortable with it. Nearly a quarter say they’d keep their kids at home, even if their district is fully opening.

4 reasons it’s OK to remain flexible

Even if you fall into one of the “definitely decided” groups, it’s okay to change your mind as time passes and the situation changes.

Here are four reasons to give yourself grace:

  • None of us has ever lived through a pandemic before. This is new territory for all of us.
  • Likewise, we don’t know how our children will respond to these new challenges. You know your child best: Trust your instincts about what’s best for them.
  • The science around COVID-19 is still evolving. There’s a lot we’re still learning, which will impact our future response.
  • As we learn what methods are most effective for keeping the virus at bay, we will adapt to a new way of life that is sustainable in the long term.

During the best of times, it can be a balancing act to juggle work and child care. Without school, 35% of parents say they are stuck with no child care options. More than half of all parents say child care is a financial burden if they have to find an alternative to the classroom.

Added financial stress and worry about who can safely care for your children adds another layer of stress on parents right now.

Couple the urgent need of child care with basic supply and demand (all parents are scrambling to find help), and it’s a perfect storm.

Trying to find affordable help on uncertain terms (How long will in-person school last? How long can we expect to be remote?) is not only a full-time job in itself, it’s also a huge mental burden.

The hardest hit

According to Healthline’s survey, parents who make less than $50,000 a year are the most impacted by school closures. Nearly half of these families reported that they have no child care options if in-classroom learning doesn’t happen.

  • 61% say they’ll stay at home with their kids
  • 39% say they’ll be unable to return to work
  • 20% say they’ll be forced to leave children at home alone

Falling behind academically, social isolation, and becoming depressed were some of the worries parents shared about leaving their children unsupervised.

There are no easy answers, but hopefully these tips can help you navigate these turbulent times.

Communicate regularly

Try and keep open communication channels with your children and other members of the family. This can sometimes be difficult with teens, but try just letting them know that you are there and have time to listen.

Reassure your children that their emotions are valid and try and help them cope with stress. But remember, you need to put your own oxygen mask on first. You can acknowledge and share your own feelings in an age-appropriate way.

Reach out and share the load

Find fellow parents who you can talk to. You need a network you can share worries with and ask for practical support.

Figure out how you can help each other. Does anyone have skills that are helping them nail the remote learning thing? Could you form a bubble with another family and do child care shifts around work schedules? Get creative and try to offer and give as much as you receive.

Use your school’s resources

Many schools have parent-teacher organizations or parent liaisons, and all schools want their students to succeed.

If you are in a bind and trying to figure out how to arrange or pay for supervision during remote learning, reach out to these resources for help. They may be able to help match your child with an existing learning pod or community group that has space for another kid.

Work on frequent check-ins

If you do end up leaving your older child at home while you go to work, talk to them about expectations and concerns. Ask them what they think will help them stay on track. Encourage them to find an at-home exercise they enjoy, and plan healthy snacks and lunches together.

This could be a chance for your kid to step up and take responsibility for their own independent learning. Ask them about their work and celebrate achievements.

Without making them feel pestered or overly monitored, keep in contact throughout the day. Perhaps you could share funny memes about your respective work or photos of your lunch. Or find a family member who can do a daily check-in over Zoom, to help maintain accountability.

Consider screen time quality

If you are freaking out over the amount of screen time your child is having, stop and take a breath. The data on the health impact of screens is changing all the time. Rather than the number of minutes, take a look at what type of activities your child is doing on the device and how they’re interacting with it.

Are they using technology to stay in contact with their friends? This could actually be beneficial for their social development and mental health. Maybe they’re researching a special interest. Even if it’s not set by the school, this project could have a positive impact on their learning.

You can also try and steer some of the screen time. If they watch a lot of TV, see if they’d be interested in some age-appropriate documentaries. If they love computer games, have they ever tried learning how to code?

All in all, screen time is unavoidable right now. So try to focus on quality over quantity, and be sure to have a list of tech-free activities ready to go when remote learning is over for the day.

Get professional help

Healthline has mental health resources to help you through this difficult time. But if you or your child are finding that your problems are becoming too much for you to handle alone, reach out to your doctor for help.

If it’s financial matters that are causing you the most stress, look for assistance sooner rather than later. There are government and community organizations that are offering practical advice, low cost services, and other funds. Your child’s school may be able to point you in the right direction.

Dealing with uncertainty is never easy. Remember that you are probably experiencing it in all areas of life right now, not just school.

Be kind to yourself. Our survey results prove that you are not alone. As always, all you can do is stay flexible and make the decisions that you think are right for your family, right now. Ask for help when you need it — we’re all in this together.