Back to School Stress (Tips for staying calm)

Back to school is an exciting time.  There’s lots of shopping to be done:  New clothes, new shoes, new crayons, and new backpacks are all in order.  As the beginning of school approaches, kids start to look forward to friends they might have missed over the summer.  Yes, back to school is an exciting time.

But it can also be very stressful, and it is completely normal for kids to experience some back to school anxiety.

Getting a new teacher means adapting to a new teaching style and starting from scratch.  For a child who struggles with transitions, this is a recipe for stress.  Riley spent the entire week before school started trying to convince me that staying home would be much easier than meeting new teachers.  As it turns out, she loves her new class (as I knew she would).

There are other back to school stressors as well.

Some kids will worry about making new friends and where their friendships from the previous year stand.  If they are split up from a best friend, they might fear losing that friend or not being able to form a similar friendship in their new class.

The return to a busier schedule puts a huge amount of stress on children.  Chances are that, just weeks ago, they sat around in their pajamas until late morning.  Suddenly they’re rushing to get dressed, rushing through breakfast, and rushing out the door each morning.  I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

And then there are the extra curricular activities.  Everything seems to start at once.

Many parents experience their own back to school stress.  They worry about such things as:  Getting the “best” teacher, whether or not their child will be happy and have friends, and separating from their kids again after a couple of months together.  When parents are under stress, kids are quick to pick up on it.  Try to save your worries for late night chats with your spouse to minimize eavesdropping by smaller ears.

We tend to focus on the excitement of back to school with the hope that it will encourage our children, but the truth is that children experience stress too.  They just don’t always verbalize it.  The good news is there are a few steps you can take to make the adjustment a little less stressful.  Below are some tips to help you help reduce back to school stress:

1.   Focus on routine:  The latest research shows that American children, on average, are under-slept.  Having a good bedtime routine is essential to helping your children catch up on sleep.  Children need anywhere from 11-14 hours of sleep (total).  A consistent bedtime (between 7-8pm is best) will help your child’s body adjust to a schedule and ensure better sleep.  A consistent morning routine is also beneficial.  Create a morning routine checklist to tape to your child’s door to help them stay focused.  Consider doing some prep work in advance.  I always have Riley decide on her breakfast for the next day before she goes to bed.  That way I can get downstairs early on waffle day and start making the batter!  Fruit can be cut up the night before, and choosing an outfit before bed can shave some time off the time it takes most preschoolers to get dressed in the morning.  Try to start the day off with a balanced breakfast (Pop Tarts don’t count), even if it means getting out of bed a little bit earlier.  Your children will thank you later.

2.   Avoid friendship focus:  As parents, we want to know that our kids are making friends and having fun.  The last thing we want is to hear that one of our children eats lunch alone every day.  But making friends is hard work, and can take time.  Some kids jump right into it while others take some time to warm up to new kids.  Let your kids make new friends at their own pace.  Instead of asking your child which friends she played with, try asking what fun activities she did at school.  Ask specific questions about art projects and stories read that day.  Taking the focus off of friendship making shows your child that you are interested in what she’s doing at school, and that you are proud of her efforts.

3.   Minimize extra-curricular activities:  There’s no doubt about it, kids today tend to be overscheduled.  Kids don’t know when to say when.  Left to their own devices, some kids would do absolutely nothing while others would sign up for every available activity.  Parents need to set the limits.  When kids are in school (including preschool), 1-2 additional activities are plenty.  Kids need time to decompress and just play.  Let them have it.

4.   Factor in downtime:  Learning to cope with stress is difficult.  Particularly for young children.  Having downtime to engage in relaxing activities is essential to building adaptive coping strategies.  Build a daily quiet time (45-60 minutes) into your early afternoon routine.  Consider investing in some “quiet time toys” to keep it interesting and special.  Check on your kids if they need it, but otherwise try to let them settle in a play quietly in their rooms.  If they are given the opportunity to practice calming activities regularly, they have a better chance of remembering to use those strategies when they are under stress.  Liam recently learned to climb into his crib when feeling overwhelmed.

5.   Know the symptoms:  Many young children struggle to verbalize their feelings when under stress, but those feelings will manifest in other ways.  Symptoms of stress in children include:  Stomach aches, headaches, poor appetite, difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, and nightmares.  They also tend to come up with excuses to avoid school, play dates, and other activities.  Some back to school anxiety is to be expected, but it should resolve within 6-8 weeks.  If you notice some of the above-mentioned symptoms and the stress seems to continue beyond 6-8 weeks, call your pediatrician to check in.

6.   Communicate on your child’s level:  Parents love to start asking questions during the ride home from school because it’s a nice quiet place to catch up.  Many kids actually need time to process the day before talking about it.  They’ve been working hard at school and likely had some new experiences.  They might need some time to think about it.  Consider approaching your child later in the day (like after quiet time or during dinner) to check in about the day.  Ask specific questions and follow up with other questions when they share interesting stories.  Praise them with specific details (this helps build self-esteem, whereas “great job” or “I’m so proud” is very general and can be confusing).  You know your child best.  Riley likes to sit back and relax during the ride home from school.  We talk a little, but I try to just let her relax and enjoy the ride.  She always comes to me bearing details of the day during her afternoon snack.  Every single time.

Back to school stress is a very normal part of readjusting to school after a couple of months away.  It generally doesn’t last too long and is usually resolved with a structured routine that includes a little downtime.

How do you combat back to school stress?

Note:  If you are in Southern California, please be sure to catch my interview on this very topic, with Brad Pomerance, on HLN Local Edition airing during the week of 10/3-10/9!

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About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and the forthcoming "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)

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