The back-to-school season can be a stressful time for both parents and kids. Any new transition can bring about changes in routines and schedules that leave us feeling discombobulated and overwhelmed.
The transition back to in-person school can add a new layer of challenges for parents. As you work to manage your own stress and lengthy to-do list, you might also need to help soothe any anxieties your child might have about returning to school.
Thankfully, there are some things you can do to make this time less stressful.
Any transition that creates a big shift in routines with many unknown and uncontrollable factors can lead to increased family stress, whether that’s returning to school, getting a new pet, or moving to a new neighborhood.
These types of changes and transitions create instability that can make it harder for kids to predict what will happen throughout their day. Some kids might also experience separation anxiety when starting a new school year, especially when starting at a new school or starting full-time school for the first time.
On top of this, the COVID-19 pandemic created a great deal of instability and unpredictability, especially when it comes to kids’ schooling. Over the last several years, many children (and parents!) had to cope with managing virtual learning, social distancing, decisions around vaccinations, and masking requirements. Returning to school this year might bring about some COVID-specific anxieties and stresses.
Although the return to school can be stressful, there are several things you can do to help manage your child’s stress, as well as your own.
Having an open line of communication with your child can do wonders to help them manage stress and have an outlet for their emotions. Talk to your child about how they’re feeling about returning to school and any big emotions they’re feeling about it. Make space for them to share and validate their emotions, but don’t try to downplay how they’re feeling or try to fix it. Listen with empathy, care, and love.
It can also be important to pay attention to signs that your child is feeling stressed out. While adults can usually tell when they’re feeling stressed, kids often don’t have the language or experience to understand the ways they respond to stress. Pay attention to signs like your child losing sleep, complaining of stomach aches, irritability, or constant worry.
Routines are an important way to help kids feel in control, especially during times of transition. You can create routines with your child that will help them feel calmer and in control. For example, you can create a consistent goodbye routine that you and your child do together at drop-off, like a secret handshake or motivational catchphrase.
School-night routines can also help reduce stress for you and your kids. Plan out tasks like packing lunches, selecting outfits for the next day, bath time, and any other tasks that might feel stressful to complete in the morning before school. By developing a consistent routine for these kinds of tasks, you can help your child feel more in control and make school mornings less hectic.
If there’s something specific that your child is worried about, work with them to make a plan and problem-solve the issue. Importantly, this doesn’t mean swooping in and solving their problems for them. Instead, work together to brainstorm potential solutions they might try.
For example, if your child is nervous about having someone to sit with at lunchtime, you might brainstorm together all of the kids they know in their class who might be potential lunch mates. You might also brainstorm things they might try to make friends with new classmates.
As a parent, you might have a strong tendency to prioritize your child’s needs over your own. But, an important part of reducing stress during transitions is to manage your own stress, sometimes before working to help others.
To manage stress during the back-to-school season, here are some things you can do:
It’s not sustainable or realistic to expect that you’d spend all of your time dedicated to your family and their needs. One important way to manage stress is to make sure you have an outlet for your feelings. Whether that means talking to a friend, partner, therapist, or coach, ensure that you have someone you can share your anxieties and frustrations with.
None of us are perfect, but the pressure to do it all (and do it perfectly) can be very high for parents - especially for mothers. Try to practice self-compassion and avoid judging yourself too harshly. Make sure you’re speaking to yourself kindly with words of comfort and support, and do your best to turn away from any critical voices in your head.
It’s okay to prioritize only the most essential tasks and to leave others for when you have more time and energy. As long as your children are fed and clothed, you’re meeting many of their basic needs. You aren’t a superhero! Don’t expect yourself to do it all.
There’s no shame in asking for help. Ironically, it’s often hardest for us to ask for help when we need it the most.
As you find yourself experiencing stress about the back-to-school season, reach out to people in your network for help, whether that’s a friend, family member, babysitter, housekeeper, or another helper. If you have a spouse or co-parent, work together to divide important back-to-school tasks. Develop a plan with your spouse or co-parent to help you both take on the tasks that you’re best suited to do.
If your stress reaches the point that it feels completely unmanageable, it might be a good idea to seek out the support of a therapist or other mental health professional. Prioritize caring for your own mental health and you’ll be even better suited to care for others.