Each year this back to school time brings a lot of emotions for both you and your child: excitement, relief, dread, fear, anxiety and a general sense of feeling overwhelmed. This is a time of many changes for the whole family; changing routines, balancing schedules, new teachers, new classmates, and possibly even new schools altogether. With all that, it is totally normal to find this a stressful time and to seek some additional supports.
What to look for
You may notice normal reactions from your child (depending on their age) which may include nightmares, difficulty separating, refusing to go to school, irritable mood, feeling uncertain about new people and situations and expressing worries. While these reactions are common, they should typically last a few days to one month as your child settles into their new routine.
As Parents, you may find that you are having difficulty balancing increased demands on your time with back to school events, after school activities, playdates, etc. as well as some feelings of ambivalence about separating from your child. We all need time to ourselves and the summer months are often filled with different stressors of making sure your child has appropriate supervision or find things to do while not involved in school activities.
In these situations, for you and your child, as you settle into the school year the uncomfortable reactions should dissipate.
How do you know when it’s time to seek more support?
If you notice that reactions by you or your child are lasting longer than a few weeks into the new school year, and are getting in the way of everyday tasks, mood, socialization, and/or family time, then it may be time to bring in the helpers. Some significant signs from your child that should not be ignored are:
- Frequent crying spells
- School refusal
- Social withdrawal
- Persistent nightmares
- Persistent bed wetting that started with the new school year
- Drastic changes in mood or behavior
- Decreased ability to complete tasks
- Increase difficulty paying attention
- Irritability and frequent arguments or tantrums
- Expression of fear about teachers or other students
If you are having the following signs, lasting longer than a few weeks, then it may be time to reach out to your family, school, and community supports as well:
- Repeated (unscheduled) visits to the school
- Nightmares or difficulty sleeping
- Recurring and persistent worried thoughts of worst-case scenarios
- Crying spells
- Feeling jittery or panicky
- Feeling overwhelmed by your child’s social and academic demands
- Watching the clock
- Feeling really sad or blue
- Not being able to focus on your own work or responsibilities
- Difficulty making time for yourself and prioritizing this
- Having a few more drinks than usual or outside your typical routine
- Realizing you are not sending your child to school or looking for reasons to keep your kids home
Tips to help your child manage their reactions
The first step is always to talk to your child about what is going on and ask them how they are feeling and what they are thinking. An ounce of prevention is worth its weight in gold. Anytime there are transitions, help your child anticipate them and have a game plan. Kids are very resourceful and are still growing their ability plan for the future. Remind your child that everyone goes through this, and is going into the new year with similar concerns. Think back to when you were a child and share some first day of school stories about how you were nervous and successful managing the new school year jitters. Be mindful of your own reactions and provide a lot of reassurance.
Setting the stage for success
Meet your child’s teacher, guidance counselor and other support staff your child may come into contact with regularly. This can be done through the schools scheduled orientations, open houses, report card pick-ups, and parent-teacher conferences. The school websites are of great value in finding out teacher’s email addresses as well as phone numbers. Find out what form of contact your child’s teachers prefer however, as your voicemail may go unanswered. Most districts have a parent portal which also allows parental access to your child’s assignments, grades and schedules. If you do not have access to a computer make the district aware of such and set up an alternative form of communication. It is helpful to know how your child is doing and if there are identified issues before the report card reveals problems so that interventions and/or services may be implemented to assist your child. Learn what options and services the school may offer also such as homework help and other afterschool help with their specific teacher. Know your rights as a parent. Lastly, don’t be afraid to ask questions.. this is your child.
At home it is helpful to provide a positive learning environment and attitude toward school and school work. If you as a parent value it, it’s likely your child will as well. Despite our best efforts, homework time can turn into a real struggle. Discuss with your child’s teacher the specific expectations of homework. Check and see how to know what your child’s exact assignments are so you know the expectations and can trouble shoot how to help your child meet them. This way you and your child will not only know what is expected but will know the consequences of not meeting those expectations.
Secondly, set up a designated space that homework can be completed. Ideally, it would be an area with little to no distractions, good lighting, quiet, etc.
Have a homework routine…. but with some flexibility. Discuss with your child (mainly older children), the time of day and duration of homework time. The flexibility applies to not only making allowances for older students with sports and club responsibilities but for those students with possibly low frustration tolerance and attention issues. Help your child with organizational (actually use their school planner) and time management skills. This tends to be an area that a great deal of children have issues within schoolwork completion.
Tools for managing feelings in the moment:
- Taking deep breaths
- Count to 10
- Send them with a transitional object such as a picture, or other pocket-sized reminder of home- remind them it may need to stay in the backpack during class and its always a good idea to give the teachers a heads up.
- Keeping a consistent routine and schedule (especially bedtimes)
- Placing emphasis on child’s successes and strengths
- Having your child identify supportive people in the school they can go to if needed.
Talk to your child and verbally walk through their daily schedule and what is going to happen to remind them what to expect and help them feel prepared.
Self-care for parents
- Remind yourself that you were young once. Remember what it was like to be so little in a big world and how you managed it. Think about times when you struggled with making friends, meeting new teachers that you maybe didn’t like so much, and feeling unsure of yourself. Remember this is all normal! You got through it, learned from it, and so will your child.
- Take deep breaths and utilize calming strategies that work for you (i.e. listen to music, take a walk, watch something light and funny, cultivate hobbies, etc.)
- Seek out your own support systems
- Eat regularly and stay hydrated
- Maintain your own bedtime and sleep schedule- we know its tough with the kids running around, but it makes a huge difference.
- Take things one day at a time and stay focused on the here and now
- Give yourself a break- parenting is hard!
Who are the helpers in the schools and in the community and how to find them.
If you decide that you and your child need more support, sit down with your child and explain that you love them and want to help them have an easier time at school. Kids assume that going to a therapist or “special” services is punitive or means they are doing something wrong- so let’s reassure them that seeking help is a really important life skill and great way to take care of ourselves.
When you have identified that it’s time to bring in more support, here are the people around you who can help:
- Your Friends and Family- talk to them! Many of them have been through this themselves. When we stay isolated with worries they tend to get worse. When we talk about what is going on with our minds and hearts it can bring relief and connection.
- Your child’s teacher or school administration- They are here to help your child be as successful as possible. Share any worries so they can work with you to problem solve and support your child.
- School Guidance or Counseling Team- They are the experts in the building on your child’s social and emotional wellbeing and can provide additional services or meet with your child to discuss any transitional struggles as needed
- Religious leaders in your community- if you are connected to a religious community they may have additional resources for after school or weekend activities, parenting or youth groups, and one-on-one guidance and support.
- Parent Support groups- These can be a great way to connect with other parents who are having a similar experience, share resources, and a great way to meet new people and new friends for you and your child.
- Online resources such as this one! Keep reading and know that much of what parents go through this time of year is perfectly normal, albeit uncomfortable.
Additionally, there are local numbers you can call for referrals or to troubleshoot issues in the moment.
Dutchess County Help Line: 845-485-9700/ 877-485-9700
Putnam County Help Line: 845-363-1478
Ulster County Crisis Line: 845-338-2370
Orange County Help Line: 800-832-1200
If you are looking for further information or more professional support Astor Services for Children & Families has outpatient services, case management, and an array of other mental health and supportive services throughout Hudson Valley and the Bronx.
Astor Services for Children & Families School-Based Behavioral Health and Training Program
Anne Rosenberg, LCSW; Emily Aicher, LCSW; Sara Weiss, LCSW; and Anna Fazio, LMSW