Back-to-school time is tough not just for kids, but for parents too. Some moms and dads get so caught up dealing with their children's lives -- from helping with homework to fears of bullying -- that they have little time, energy or attention to deal with their own problems. By the opposite token, parents can get so consumed with their own busy lives that they don't notice a child's struggles in a new semester until the troubling situation becomes truly serious.
Here's what parents can do to help make a healthy transition from summer fun to autumn responsibilities.
Recognize that kids' back-to-school blues can mirror your own stress over the transition
Children aren't the only ones who find it stressful to switch from the loose schedule of summer to the hunker-down demands of fall. As vacations and playtime give way to stricter study times and sleep schedules for kids, parents face heavier work loads in September after the more slack month of August, with office causal wear Fridays and time off for vacation. That's added to more school-related chores, like helping kids with homework, car pooling them to after-school activities and worrying about what bad behaviors they may be picking up from new classmates.
- Ease the family back into the school routine. Rather than expecting your child to go "cold turkey" when sacrificing playtime for schoolwork, allow a reasonable amount of fun time for video games, TV, outdoor play or whatever else the child enjoys. Do yourself the same favor, carving out time to see friends and do whatever relaxes your mind and body.
- Explain to your child that new experiences can be scary, but that once a routine is established, he or she will feel more in control. Build confidence by reminding your child about satisfying experiences (a good grade in a tough class or an accomplishment in a sport) in which his or her efforts led to success.
- Be open in acknowledging that everyone is under extra stress right now. It's easier to practice patience with one another when reassured that this difficult transition time won't last forever.
- Face your own fears about having less time with your kids. Your own separation anxiety and empty-nest fears get in the way of letting your child go -- and grow.
Consider that excessive concerns about your child can stem from your own traumatic childhood memories
It's natural to want to protect your children from pain, and of course you'll want to share the benefit of your own hard-earned wisdom. But going overboard with worry may only increase your child's anxiety and be a projection of your own experience.
An example is the over-the-top reaction when a mother named Lorraine was told by her daughter's fifth-grade teacher that the young girl needs glasses. The news threw Lorraine into a tizzy, recalling how she had been mercilessly teased in fifth grade for wearing thick glasses. On the day the girl's new eyeglasses were ready, Lorraine blurted out her fears to her daughter about what the other kids might say. Further, she insisted on driving the child to and from school rather than let her take the bus with the other kids. As it turned out, the girl was not grateful, but angry with her mother for making such a big fuss.
- If worries about how your child is doing at school feel all-consuming -- or if other people mention that your anxiety seems out of proportion to the present problem - search your memories for painful experiences that could be skewing your perception of your child's situation. Did you feel excluded from the "in crowd"? Were you always struggling with homework? Which teacher did you think didn't like you? Recognize the triggers of your own memories to ease anxiety and allow you to respond with less panic over your child's situation.
- Talk over the issue with your partner or a friend to help you process your feelings, so you can be less emotional and more objective and constructive reacting to your child.
Stay tuned in to your children's lives and problems
On the opposite end of the spectrum from the scenario about Lorraine is when parents are so busy juggling their own work demands, marital issues and social obligations that they barely notice their children's problems. Yet denying or ignoring such problems can lead to serious trouble.
Trauma suffered at school -- often from bullying -- can be difficult to detect unless parents are paying close attention because kids tend to keep it hidden. In the U.S., up to 3 million students -- male and female -- are bullied each year. It can happen in school or outside of school, or on social media, where a reputation can be trashed in an instant or a child's secrets broadcast widely, with potentially devastating results. Sadly, bullied children are more prone to depression and to suicide.
- Schedule time to keep track of what's going on with your child. Family dinnertime is an excellent opportunity for this, so try to eat together daily or at least several times a week. If your schedule doesn't fit family dinner, start the day with family breakfast. Or agree on a short phone check-in; that can help you pick up on potential problems from the day that can be addressed when you get home that evening.
- Be supportive, saying openly that you care about your child's experiences and want to hear about the bad as well as the good. If your child makes sweeping negative statements like, "School sucks," realize that it's common for kids to over-generalize negativity but always take such comments seriously. Say "I understand" and "Nerves are normal, even for kids you think are popular." Gently urge the child to offer more details so possible solutions to specific problems can be explored.
- As much as your schedule permits, take an active role in the school community -- going to PTA meetings, coaching extracurricular activities -- while reassuring your child that you're not spying, but simply enjoy being part of his or her life.
- Encourage your child to feel involved in your life and work activities, too. Share about your day's success and also setbacks, even asking for reactions and advice, Doing so builds closeness, encourages maturity and presents a model of communicating openly about ups and downs.