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Boys Town - New Normal

Six Steps to Navigating Social Anxiety and Embracing a New, New Normal

September 1, 2021     By Tara Borsh, Psy.D. & Rachele Merk, Ph.D. Nevada Behavioral Health Clinic

Anxiety, Back-to-School, Boys Town Parenting, education, Mental Health, Parenting Resources, Parenting Skills, Stress, Understanding Behavior

With our kiddos heading back to school and more of us going back to the office, returning to “normal" is proving to be just as stress inducing and anxiety producing as the moment the coronavirus first upended our lives.

For the past year, we've all had to navigate an ever-changing landscape of precautions, restrictions and mandates. Now as more communities “re-open" and more pre-pandemic activities and routines return, many of us are experiencing heightened social anxiety. If that includes you and your family, know that you're not alone and help is always available.

The uneven effects of the pandemic – severe health issues, financial duress and job insecurity for some and only minor inconveniences for others – has led to vastly different attitudes and responses about everything from masks to vaccines. It's no wonder many are feeling disoriented and stressed out about when and how to get back to normal. And what is normal now?

It's okay to not feel okay. But there are ways to reduce your family's worry and anxiety. Here are six steps you can take right now to ease the fear, calm the nerves and boost your resiliency:

1. Stop comparing yourself to others.

As hard as it may be to do, stop judging your feelings or your family's readiness against others. When you hear stories or scan social media feeds that imply friends and neighbors have no concerns or feel completely carefree going about their business, be glad for them. But don't get down on yourself and feel guilty if you are not in the same space yet.

Just like those who try to keep up with the Joneses often find themselves trapped in financial quicksand, those who think their feelings and attitudes must mirror everyone around them can quickly find themselves emotionally messed up. Everyone has a different comfort level. Finding yours will be a journey you need to take at your own pace. This is true for your kids, too. Remind them that their friends and classmates may be more ready (or more reluctant) to resume certain activities. That's okay.

2. Share your feelings.

Society likes to tell us that showing certain emotions or vulnerabilities equates to weakness or failure. But expressing fears and talking openly about feelings can be empowering. It allows others to extend help and provide much-needed reassurance, reminding us that we're not in this alone.

But showing emotion is a tricky thing, especially in front of our kids. Being overly emotional can heighten their anxieties. Seeing a parent fall apart can make kids think Mom or Dad can't help them process their own emotional needs. This dynamic often plays out during school drop-offs, especially with young children. The separation anxiety can be hard to control, but it's best if Mom and Dad can remain emotionally neutral. Keeping it together until you're alone in the car or back home means you won't pass your anxieties or fears onto your kids. It also gives them the space and nudge they need to independently manage their feelings and practice healthy coping skills.

3. Reclaim control.

Give your kids a voice and a degree of control in family activities, then work together to find a balance that satisfies everyone. Let them know they can always come to you with questions and concerns. Encourage them to tell you when they feel overwhelmed, want to leave a situation or want to do more. Allowing your kids to take the lead gives them a sense of control and helps them feel capable and strong.   

They may tell you they feel “really nervous" about going to the park or a ballgame, or they may ask “Do I have to wear a mask?" or “Will I get sick?" These are the moments that call for honesty and reassurance. Remind your children that you are doing everything you can to protect them. Others around them, such as their teachers or coaches, are doing the same.

4. Stay positive (or at least neutral). 

Have you caught yourself complaining about people who wear or don't wear masks? Do you get snarky about covid restrictions or the lack of restrictions? Surrendering to negativity is self-defeating. As parents, our negativity can exacerbate our children's anxieties, feed into their fears and undermine their resiliency. For the sake of their mental health, sometimes it's best to keep our opinions neutral and focus on how things are, not how we wish them to be. 

If you know your kids need to mask up at school or at a museum or in a store, then deal with that reality by preparing them for those moments. Practice and model masking behavior. And make if fun! Families with younger kids have had success pretending to be superheroes when they mask up. For kids struggling to understand why masks are required in some places but not in others, talk about how guidelines are influenced by many different factors, but emphasize the importance of being flexible. Praise your kids when they successfully adapt to changing circumstances and show resilience.  

Also, be aware that your kids are hearing and seeing mixed messages about masks and vaccines. It's likely they will encounter friends, classmates and strangers whose approach and attitude are much different than what you advocate. Be open about what you believe and why. Acknowledge that not everyone may agree. Regardless of what others are doing, reinforce the importance of being respectful even when you don't agree with or understand someone's actions.          

5. Avoid overcompensating and overscheduling.

Moderation is always good. Your first instinct may be to dive right into lots of distractions – sports, projects and outings – to force yourself and the kids to move forward and get back to “normal." But before you completely fill up the social calendar, step back and ask yourself, “What can I handle right now?" and “What can my kids handle?" 

It's okay to take it slow and set limits. If your social schedule is lighter, don't let that guilt you into doing more. Accept the fact that it may take longer to get back to your old normal or that you might never quite get there. But your new normal can be just as satisfying, if not better! Now is the time to reassess priorities and let go of those activities or obligations that no longer bring joy or fulfillment.

6. Find your anchors.

Identify a support network – the people you and your family can turn to for help and encouragement when stress and self-doubt bubble to the surface. Anchors can be anyone you or your children trust – work colleagues, other parents, a teacher, school counselor or spiritual adviser. Allow their voices to ring in your ears with messages of hope and optimism. You can get through this!

By taking these steps, you can lighten the stress, relieve the tension and find much-needed relief. But if the emotional toll of the pandemic still weighs heavily on you or a loved one, please call the Boys Town National Hotline at 1-800-448-3000 or text VOICE to 20121. Trained counselors are at the ready to offer whatever support, resources or referrals your family needs.       

Dr. Tara Borsh
Director, Boys Town Nevada Behavioral Health Clinic
Dr. Rachele Merk
Psychologist, Boys Town Nevada

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