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Parents Seek Ways to Confront Uncertainty as Schools Reopen

Mariia Korneeva/Adobe Stock

Working parents face tough decisions as the school year starts, including who will care for their children while they attend school virtually.

Taryn Yates, grant manager for the Idaho Children's Trust Fund, has a 5-year-old entering kindergarten next week in Boise, where schools are holding classes online for at least the first three weeks. She's still not sure who will be watching her son, and said it's the uncertainty that's most stressful. Yates pointed out that humans are designed to react to threats in short bursts, not prolonged dangers.

"It's just like you're always on guard," she said, "and that's actually just having a constantly triggered stress system that really just creates a wear-and-tear effect on your body, over time."

Many factors contribute to this constant state of stress, she said, including access to safe child care during the pandemic and the threat from coronavirus itself.

Yates said most humans have a negativity bias -- walking in the woods, for instance; if we hear a noise, we assume it's a predator. She said that response was useful thousands of years ago, but doesn't serve modern humans very well. Yates said people can push back against that bias and "hack" their brains to think more positively -- which strengthens an "optimism bias."

"Well, what if everyone's OK? What's that going to look like -- if, every single path in front of me, everyone ends up OK? And just really doing these mental exercises with yourself, to challenge that negativity bias and calm your brain down," she said.

Talking to friends and using tactics such as journaling can help confront this bias, as well, she said. These are important ways to relieve stress now, she said, but parents will need bigger, more sustainable solutions to stay afloat going forward.

"In the long run," she said, "it's really going to take investment from our local and state governments and federal government to 'prop up' people with children so that we can all thrive."