Back to School Stress

16. August, 2016

Dr John Mayer


Back to School Stress


The biggest source of stress is always from the unknown, always. When we, humans at any age, do not have first hand experience with an event, we stress about it. With school, think about it, the upcoming school year is a big unknown for both parents and children. No matter how old you are the upcoming year holds a lot of mystery, if you are going into the 7th grade (middle school here) you may have been an expert at grades 1 through 6, but 7th grade is a new experience.

I’m sure many of you can relate to this: I was a confident, successful student my whole career, yet I can still remember and tell you that each Sunday night before the start of the next school term, at every level, even through graduate Medical School (Northwestern University Medical School) I had a sleepless night that night. What was this semester going to be like? How would my professors be? Is this the semester I fail?

Our goal shouldn’t be the impossible task to eliminate the stress, but to help our children cope with that stress. We do too much thinking as parents about how to eliminate this or that in our child’s life rather than letting them face SOME stress and learn how to develop coping mechanisms in the face of it. This is healthy and good development. They will not and cannot avoid stress all their life; it’s inevitable so help them face it. To do this parents can share their methods of handling unknown situations, tell YOUR story of how YOU coped with the new school year when you were young. Often children feel like they are going through this alone or that their big, strong parents never had to feel this way.

So, some ways parents can help with the stress:

  • Keep your home stress free as much as possible around these times-they don’t need extra stress.
  • Be compassionate about your children’s fears-this is not a time to, “tough it out” or to minimize it—“It’s just school-wait to you get a job and bills and responsibilities.”
  • Tell them how you experienced the same feelings when you were their age-as stated above.
  • Take their school stress seriously—don’t dismiss it or diminish it—don’t compare it to the adult stresses you face and then belittle what they are going through. For them, these first experiences of facing a stressful event are just as big in their lives as the “serious adult stresses” you face as a parent—trust me on this.
  • Suggest to them coping strategies—such as:
  • Being organized for the start of school
  • Reviewing habits that worked well last year
  • Improving on skills that were weak last year
  • Tell them how you cope with stress-tell them your “story”
  • Take breaks/have fun/get physical activity
  • Use the coping skill of having them focus on several of the pleasurable aspects of going back to school, such as seeing their friends, playing in a sport, participating in the music program, art program, getting some new clothes, etc.
  • Teach them ‘visualization’ techniques-that is guide them through visualizing in their mind what the classroom will look like, what the other students will look like, image going through a typical day, etc. etc.

Children worry about many of the same things we adults do: failure, how hard will this be, again, as above, what is this unknown adventure I am embarking on. Keep in mind that children are not in complete control of their lives to the extent that adults are, thus their fears are magnified because they feel helpless and powerless to change what they are about to experience.

Children changing to a new school or changing a grade have all the above fears PLUS: the peer group which offered them sameness and comfort is different.

Extra credit tips:

Make a big deal and have fun getting school supplies… pencils and pens, special writing paper, notebooks and binders to keep organized, an assignment notebook, a backpack or book bag to carry school supplies, highlighter pens to underline sections of books, a special case to carry lunch or snacks. Make sure your kids are an active part in this treasure hunt. These “treats” help kids see the positive in school and look forward to school and are great coping mechanisms.

Along with getting supplies, insure your child is organized and prepared for school. This minimizes the “unknowns” that fuel fears in children. Don’t rush through or neglect preparation and organization. It is important to keep it up through the school year-this develops it as a habit in your children.

The great step in helping your child prepare for the beginning of the school routine is to set schedules, you might even say rules, for your child. You will go to bed at xxxxxx time, xxxxx time is homework time, you must participate in one extracurricular activity each year-you can pick which one, but you must be involved. You do this because children will not do these things on their own. They are not finished products so we cannot expect them to conduct themselves like we do. This is one of the biggest conflicts between parents and children. We (adults) expect them (children) to approach things like school the same way we would. My favorite example is procrastination. Parents get frustrated when children wait to the last minute to do an assignment, when we parents would have prepared for it ahead of time. Children need firm guidelines on all these issues of school preparation asked in this question. I discuss getting great grades in my booklet for parents at:

Make sure your child has a rich and full life outside school. School is only a part of their life, an important part, but only a part. This is a great coping mechanism for their entire life and a very good one for parents to follow as well!

Talk excitedly and positively about the upcoming school year. AND watch out for hidden negative comments/reactions such as “The Party’s Over” or crinkle up your face when you speak of school, etc.

If you can, make visits to school throughout the summer. If can’t get inside, visit the neighborhood and look at the outside. If they have a playground, athletic field, track, pool go there and use it and be upbeat and positive.

Plan out something that will be a ‘bonus’ or special treat once school starts. Make it a tradition like Friday after school ice cream celebrations, etc.

Check throughout my web site for more school help!




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