Helping Your Child Cope with Uncertainty this School Year

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

School is back in session and students, teachers, and parents are adjusting to their new remote, in-person, or hybrid school routines. For many students and parents, the stress of adjusting to the ‘new normal’ at school is compounded by the uncertainty related to school plans that are seemingly subject to change at any time. Kids with ADHD, who rely on predictability and routines to help regulate their attention, behavior, and emotions, may be struggling with feelings of uncertainty more than most.

Parents, who are struggling to cope with uncertainty related to Covid-19 on many levels, are faced with the difficult task of managing their own uncertainty-related anxiety while also trying to help minimize their children’s anxiety. While the uncertainty itself won’t be going away any time soon, there are many fairly simple things parents can do to help kids with ADHD cope with uncertainty surrounding school plans and schedules.

  • Talk with your child about their worries. Create an environment at home where your child feels comfortable talking about their worries and fears related to school. This means listening when they talk, validating and normalizing their feelings, and acknowledging that things are difficult right now. It’s okay to reassure your child, but avoid accidentally minimizing or dismissing their feelings with statements like, “Don’t worry, everything will be fine.”
  • Provide the big-picture perspective. During uncertain times, the anxiety felt by kids is driven in part by their inability to see the big picture. They don’t have the life experience or knowledge to truly recognize that our lives will eventually return to normal. Fill in this gap for your child by providing the big-picture perspective. Remind them of other times in history, times in their life, or times in your own life when things were difficult but got better eventually.
  • Focus on the facts. Uncertainty and worry stem from things we think might happen, not necessarily things that have actually happened or things that are true and factual. If your child’s worries are full of ‘what if’ questions, focus on the things that we do know with at least some degree of certainty. While there are many negative things in life that might happen, there is also a very good (and often much greater) chance that they won’t happen at all.
  • Be prepared for possible changes in school format or routine. Kids are less anxious during uncertain times when they feel prepared and have a plan. If you and your child are worried about abrupt changes from in-person to remote learning, then now is the time to create a plan for what your child’s remote learning routine and structure may look like. This includes plans for child-care coverage and tutoring help whenever feasible, plans for morning and evening routines (these should be very similar to what you are doing now), and plans for what your child’s remote learning desk and homework area will look like. Have your child help create these plans so they feel a sense of control.
  • Talk about all of the things that will not During uncertain times, there are many things that may change quickly, but there are also many more things that will not change at all. Help your child make a list of the important relationships, activities, and things that will not change regardless of what happens with school or with COVID-19 more broadly.

One of the biggest challenges that kids with ADHD will face this year is dealing with the uncertainty that comes with attending school during the pandemic. If your child’s anxiety is interfering with their life at school or at home, talk to their doctor, pediatrician, or therapist to get additional support and treatment.