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How to Manage Big Back-to-School Feelings

The end of summer can sneak up on you, bringing with it many transitions for your family – early mornings, lunches to pack, new routines and responsibilities – all while you also juggle your busy work schedule. It’s no wonder that the start of a new school year can make parents feel anxious and overwhelmed.

And going back to school can cause stress for your kids too. They may worry about making friends, doing well in classes, or navigating a new school. Even kids who are usually amenable to change can find themselves having “big feelings” at back-to-school time. Why? Because change is hard. New things can cause both fear and excitement.

As your kids prepare to return to school, you will hear about all their big feelings as you also navigate your own mood. Here are four tips to help you and your child get through this tricky time.

Preparation: The first thing to do is to figure out your own feelings about the transition. Aren’t thrilled about your child’s new assigned teacher? Have anxiety about whether your child will make friends this year? Process these concerns before you talk to your child about the change so that you can keep these worries to yourself. If you’re feeling worried, your child will likely pick up on it.

The second thing is to talk about what school will be like so your child can begin to process fears and feelings they might have. See if you can get a sneak peek at the school and/or teachers before the first day. Many schools offer tours or a meet-and-greet with the teacher.

Listen and accept: Try your best to listen to your child’s feelings without judgment or immediate problem-solving. Practice active listening (repeating back what they said) so that they feel heard. Three things to avoid:

  • Toxic positivity – “You’ll LOVE school. All your friends will be there, you’ll have fun!”
  • Minimizing feelings – “Don’t cry. Don’t be scared. There’s nothing scary about school.”
  • Comparing kids – “Look, Tommy’s having fun out there. And see? Emma is smiling; she’s happy at school.” 

Say goodbye with confidence: If you linger or hesitate, you are unintentionally cueing your child’s brain to think that you seem unsure or something must be wrong. So, when it comes to saying goodbye, say it with confidence and continual momentum. For younger children, ask the teacher to take their hand as you let them go or meet a friend so they can walk into school together. Even something simple like a note or drawing that your child can touch or look at when they miss you is beneficial. For older children, a small memento for their locker is often appreciated.

Pile on the compassion: You may be worn out from thinking about a new school year or emotionally drained after a series of hard drop-offs or updating and coordinating busier calendars. So, give yourself a little grace and be extra kind to yourself and your child. Don’t forget to remind your brain, despite potential crying and distress, that your child is okay.

During the first days or weeks of the new school year, it’s important that both you and your child enjoy some self-care. Keep afternoons or evenings low-key, consider a special outing like a trip to the ice cream shop (or two), and find ways to celebrate the little and big achievements that result from adjusting and welcoming in a new school year.

Visit our blog for more back-to-school tips and ways to support your child’s mental health this school year.