Calgary Psychiatrist Dr. Allan Donsky offers advice for anxious parents as Jewish Day Schools reopen

Calgary Psychiatrist Dr. Allan Donsky

by Maxine Fischbein

(AJNews) – Calgary Psychiatrist Dr. Allan Donsky says it is a given that some parents struggle more than others with the decision about whether they will send their children back to school amidst the Coronavirus Pandemic.

“There is no one right answer,” says Donsky who says that each family must decide which path is the best one for them.

Donsky feels for parents as they seek to navigate and tolerate the opposing tensions caused by COVID.  On the one hand they are protecting the health of their children; on the other, they worry about the academic, social and mental health ramifications of choosing to keep their kids at home.

Everything is exacerbated by incomplete and rapidly changing information about the virus and the responses to it by authorities they don’t always trust.

“We don’t even know what we don’t know yet,” says Donsky.

“Whenever we think about the future, there is always some uncertainty . . . and nervousness. We now have this heightened awareness because there is this virus out there.”

“Each person’s tolerance level is different.  There is no one right way to do this,” Donsky says.

Unfortunately, the choices have, themselves, become politicized making it even harder for parents to make difficult decisions.

“Contradictory messages from authorities aren’t helping.  There is no anchor here,” Donsky says.

Donsky believes that parents are all on the same page in one regard; they want to keep their children healthy, body and soul.

“We have to keep vigilant even though we are fatigued,” he says. “When we are fatigued, the brain wants to shut down.  We don’t do our best thinking and lose our capacity to be wise.”

What can result is a desperate choice between fight, flight and freeze impulses.

While much research suggests that it is important for kids to be back at school, just how damaging is it for kids whose parents opt to keep them at home?

We don’t fully know the answer to that question, says Donsky.

“Kids are more resilient than we sometimes think they are.  They make do . . . . The really young kids don’t know what they’re missing.”

There is perspective to be found in our people’s history.

“As Jews, we’ve been displaced, and worse.  We’ve made it and survived,” adds Donsky.

Of course, much depends on the dynamics of each family and the personality of each child.

“Introverts are having a great time and the extroverts don’t know what to do with themselves,” notes Donsky.

There are positives where the pandemic is concerned if we choose to recognize and embrace them.

“This is a chance for parents to decouple from technology and get creative,” says Donsky, who encourages parents to see this time of uncertainty as an opportunity to help their kids develop what he says are “important life skills like flexibility and adaptability as opposed to rigidity,” helping to inculcate an outlook on life that helps kids learn how to bend rather than break.

He adds that on a societal level, there is a major silver lining.

“There is a great awakening going on here,” Donsky says, as many recognize that we are “one big family” and “all in it together.”

For parents who are worried that their children may fall behind academically due to the disruption caused by COVID, Donsky urges calm.

“The academics are going to come,” says Donsky, who wants parents to cut themselves and others some slack.

“Everyone has to be flexible, adaptable, human and reasonable about this.  Nobody is getting a call from the truancy officer.”

“Expectations can, and probably should, in some ways drop,” adds Donsky.  “Parents don’t need to panic.  We are all in this together including the schools.  They are modifying what they are doing too.”

As Alberta students head back to school, Donsky suggests that kids in Jewish day schools enjoy some important advantages.

“Resiliency is the capacity to weather a storm and a big part of resiliency is the capacity to access what you need,” he says, adding that parents who have their children in Jewish day schools are by definition part of a caring community equipped to provide shelter in that storm.

“Communities can be resilient,” he says, noting that our Jewish communities have built-in advantages including schools, subsidy systems, and social services like those provided by Jewish Family Services.

“Do kids need to learn and socialize at school?

Yes, says Donsky, “but kids can also learn online.”

“Teenagers are currently getting therapy online and the results are very good.  It can work the same way with education.”

Donsky suggests that during this time of contagion, it is especially helpful to concentrate on what he calls SPK.   SLOW down, be PATIENT, show KINDNESS and compassion for yourself and others.

“Navigating the unknown is about perspective,” Donsky says.  “Uncertain waters . . . that’s all this is.”

Maxine Fischbein is a local journalism initiative reporter for Alberta Jewish News.


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