Nine Steps to a Successful Start for Every Family

Back-to-school transitions can be challenging in any year, and this year is particularly complicated due to Covid-related uncertainties and stressors. How can a family navigate this anything-but-normal pandemic year and get everyone off to a great start? That was the focus of a recent workshop for parents by COVID Support VT Clinical Supervisor Cath Burns, Ph.D. 

“This is a massive transition for every family, and we’re all still in it,” Burns told workshop participants. As a clinical psychologist who is also quality director for Vermont Care Partners, she sees the effects on families across the state. As the mother of two teenagers, she knows first-hand the importance of practicing what she preaches about day-to-day wellness to manage stress and promote resilience.

“The pandemic has turned up the volume on all of the things that we find stressful,” she said. “Self-care won’t change the stress you feel, but it will make you more effective at dealing with it.”

Burns underscores how critical it is for parents to model healthy coping and self-care, and to promote daily wellness in the family. “Our kids are watching us all the time, even the teenagers we think are ignoring us,” she quipped. She suggests printing out copies of the Daily Stress Management Plan for everyone in the family, and pinning one to the fridge. Set goals individually and as a family, and hold each other accountable for progress.

Nine Ways to Promote Family Wellness

Burns outlined a number of strategies and tips for promoting resilience through daily wellness and getting families off to a great start this school year.

  • Find ways to stop your brain from running wild. Set an alarm for once an hour and stop, breathe, stretch, reset. Use an app, try a class, find what works for you and use it.
  • Eating well will help you manage stress better. Plan meals ahead and enlist help in preparing simple, nutritious meals. If your family is struggling to have healthy food on the table, call 2-1-1 to find support.
  • Get up and move. Do this as a family if you can. Even if you only have five minutes, it’s better than nothing and could lead to 10 minutes next time. 
  • Sleep and get plenty of rest. Limit caffeine to before noon, turn off electronics an hour before bedtime, wind down with calming activities, and sleep in a cool quiet room. 

“Schedules have been knocked off track by the pandemic for many people. Now’s the opportunity to get back on track.”

~ Cath Burns, Ph.D., COVID Support VT Clinical Supervisor
  • Connect with people every day, preferably people you like! Encourage children to engage with other trusted adults in whom they can confide.
  • Be aware of your substance use, including caffeine, sugar, alcohol, and drugs. Notice if you’re reaching for substances more as a coping mechanism, and explore other strategies for managing stress.
  • Manage any pre-existing medical conditions, including mental health concerns and physical illnesses that can exacerbate stress.
  • Limit your exposure to news and social media. Set an example for kids to regulate screen time.
  • Practice gratitude. Notice something you’re grateful for often and throughout the day. Train yourself to find gratitude in any moment, even the tough ones. Observe how it starts to shift your worldview.

Listen Deeply, Be Present, Have Patience

Burns underscored how important it is during this transitional time to listen deeply to your kids and engage them in conversation about their social life. Be available to them. Ask them how they’re doing. Be present to the answers, and the feelings behind them. Notice the nuances of their behaviors, especially if there are changes in mood, or in eating or sleep patterns. “Behavior is communication,” she said. 

Most of all, Burns said: “Be patient with yourself and your children! We are all out of practice with full-time work and school demands, we are all likely to be really tired, and we may all act out at times. Shift your mindset into one of compassion, for yourself and your kids.” 

“It’s hard not to be reactive when we’re faced with stressors beyond our control. But we can’t be proactive when we’re reactive.”

~ Cath Burns, Ph.D., COVID Support VT Clinical Supervisor

Find Family Resources and Learn More

From Vermont: 

From Yale Child Study Center: 


From the Centers for Disease Control: 

Other COVID Support VT Handouts and Information Sheets: 

Books about Managing Anxiety: 

What to Do When You Worry Too Much, by Dawn Huebner (appropriate for school-aged children) 

Outsmarting Worry: An Older Kid’s Guide to Managing Anxiety, by Dawn Huebner (appropriate for middle-school children)

My Anxious Mind: A Teen’s Guide to Managing Anxiety and Panic, by Katherine Martinez and Michael Tompkins (appropriate for teens)Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents: 7 Ways to Stop the Worry Cycle and Raise Courageous and Independent Children, by Lynn Lyons and Reid Wilson

Blog written by Brenda Patoine on behalf of VCN/Vermont Care Partners for COVID Support Vermont, a grant funded by FEMA and the Vermont Department of Mental Health

Need to Talk?

Call 2-1-1 (in Vermont) for assistance.

In Crisis? 

If you or someone you care for is experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm, you can: call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-825; text VT to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Counselor 24/7; connect with your local community mental health center for 24/7 support. 

Find Help

Find resources and tools for coping with stress at

One-click translation to 100 languages of most everything on the website, plus Multilingual Resources.

Find your local community mental health center by visiting Vermont Care Partners.

COVID Support VT is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency, managed by Vermont’s Department of Mental Health, and administered by Vermont Care Partners, a statewide network of 16 non-profit community-based agencies providing mental health, substance use, and intellectual and developmental disability services and supports. 

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