Supporting Your Child through Back-to-School

In my neck of the woods, families are getting ready for back-to-school tomorrow morning.  Whether homeschooling or traditional schooling, families are trading in lazy summer days for the structure that comes with fall.  The beginning of September represents a return to familiar routines and the “serious business” of life, such as sports, music lessons and community involvement.  For our kids, it is a significant time in their lives as they prepare to start a new year of school.  Here are some important ways we as parents can support them as they make the transition back.

  • Remember what it is like. For most of us, heading back to school is a distant memory.  But can you remember what it was like to start your last new job?  Remember the stomach knots, the worry about whether you would pick up quickly enough, impress your boss, or make friends with new co-workers?  I hated those feelings, and it’s no different for our kids, except more intense for them because they are kids.  They do not have our adult brains or coping skills.  They cannot take themselves out for Starbucks on lunch break to help get through the first day.  If your child is making a transition to a brand new school or a new environment (such as high school), the intensity level is even higher.  Keeping these things in mind will help you better identify with what your child is going through.
  • Be emotionally available. After adults start a new job, don’t we reach out to our spouses, friends and family members to talk about how things are going?  Just like that, our kids need to know that we are interested in what they are experiencing as they transition into a new season.  Hold back the instinct to lecture when they speak of difficulties.  How they feel now may not be how they feel in a few weeks.  Right now they need to have someone listen without judgment.  Of course it is important to encourage and to frame things in an objective light, but we must do that without minimizing our child’s feelings.  Alternatively, if our child does not want to share lots of details, we should not press them, but continue to make ourselves available by inviting dialogue.
  • Simplify. This is a point I need to revisit often.  Back to school is second to the start of a new calendar year for me, and I get very excited about getting all of my ducks in a row, setting new goals to achieve, etc.  However, just like New Year’s resolutions, having unrealistic expectations to achieve or “fix” everything all at once is a recipe for failure.  Keep things simple for your kids and yourselves in the first few weeks of school.  Make meals that are kid-friendly and familiar – your child has enough new things in their lives to cope with right now.  (Less complicated meals are easier on you too!).  Don’t load on a bunch of new chores or expectations until your child is in established in their new fall rhythm. Keep your focus on what is truly important to the flow of your/their days in the immediate time, and gradually add as you all adjust to the reality of a new school year.
  • Expect regression. As children take on a new life change, it is common for them to regress in areas they had previously mastered.  This could be in self-care, academic skills, behavior and the like.  Regression is part of coping with change and struggling to find a new “normal.”  Remember that change is hard and can be painful (think of how our muscles hurt when we begin to exercise regularly, and how tempting it is to quit as a result).  Rather than judging it as bad character and responding harshly, recognize what it is and sympathize by saying “I know it is a challenging time right now,” then support them in making good choices.  Help them to identify what their struggle is and to brainstorm solutions for dealing with their stresses.
  • Support them back into routines and responsibility. In the early weeks of school, help your child remember what is expected and gently support them in achieving it.  You may need to check in with them often to make sure they have set their alarm, done their chores, set out their clothes or made their lunch the night before, or had their shower.  They may benefit from a checklist you develop with them that lists their responsibilities.  I am not saying that you should do the work for them, but rather you may need to be their “external brain” as they adjust to remembering everything they are responsible for.  The anxiety and fatigue our children can experience with back-to-school interferes with rational thinking.  We can support them by helping them remember until their new routines and responsibilities become engrained in their behavior.

While we parents joke that “it’s the most wonderful time of the year,” it is important to remember that our children may be experiencing a very different feeling.  With some perspective and intentionality on our part, we can smooth out some bumps along the way for a more grace-filled start to our kids’ school year.

Your turn:  What helped you feel better as a child facing back-to-school time?  I’d love to hear about your experiences!

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