While kids everywhere are milking as much fun from the last days of summer as they can, parents have the very real job of transitioning into the school routine. And most parents know that even if kids are excited, there can be some underlying anxiety that comes with returning to school. The on-again, off-again schedule due to the pandemic has added another level of navigation, and there will probably still be some uncertainty as we move forward. Fortunately, you can do things to help ease summer's end and start the year on a positive note.
Parenting Strategies for Back to School
Strategy #1: Create a Safe Place for Children and Teens to Talk
Remote learning created a new avenue for potential anxiety. For example, teenagers who weren't with their peers last year may feel self-conscious. Conversely, introverted students who thrived in a remote setting may be worried about returning to the classroom. On the other hand, being at home was a haven for some students from stressors such as social anxiety, bullying, or navigating learning disorders.
Teens don't always want to talk about their concerns, but it's essential to let them know you are available when they feel like sharing. If they don't feel comfortable talking with you, suggest reaching out to a relative, teacher, or another respected adult.
Younger children may feel confused about their safety. We have taught them that it’s not safe to be in physical proximity with other people throughout the pandemic; now, they’re heading back to school in person. With rising COVID infections, they may feel apprehensive about returning to the classroom. You can help normalize their worries by talking openly and at age-appropriate levels about what the school is doing to keep everyone safe and what they can do to take care of themselves, such as washing their hands regularly. Then, if changes come about, be open about the information so kids can prepare mentally and emotionally.
Kids of all ages are resilient, but they may need help processing their emotions. Watch for signs such as isolation, irritability, low mood, difficulty sleeping, lack of motivation, disinterest in usual activities, complaints of physical ailments, changes in eating patterns, or concerns about their safety.
If you see signs of anxiety, start by asking open-ended questions that invite conversation. Acknowledging their fears assists them to feel more secure. Validate their concerns and feelings without fueling them. Instead, help them find coping strategies such as creating a list of ideas on how to resolve their concerns, or teaching them simple breathing exercises. Feeling empowered often raises children’s confidence. Remember, kids may want to talk about problems without having you fix them, so it’s essential to demonstrate that you believe in their abilities.
Teach them to recognize the physical signs of anxiety and ways to manage it. For example, a productive tool for moving kids out of concern is envisioning a stoplight; a red light means stopping and asking yourself what you are worried about. Yellow means to create a list of potential solutions to remedy the worry, and green means pick the strategy you like best and move forward.
The most important thing you can do as a parent is to model confidence and calm behavior. When children are anxious, they will respond better if you stay calm, show empathy, and guide them to regulate their emotions. Often when kids are upset, they will ask more questions—even unnecessary questions; this is a good indication you may need to slow down and check in.
Related Reading: How to Teach Your Child Emotional Regulation Skills
Parenting Strategy #2: Keep Your Focus on the Positive
Help your children manage their emotions by creating positive anticipation. Remind them how fun it is to see friends, learn new things, and participate in new activities. Prioritize optimism instead of results; the goal is to keep them interested in learning, not adding pressure to perform.
Talk openly about how humans can feel many emotions at one time. This return to school after a pandemic can be confusing for kids who are already experiencing big emotions without the emotional regulation to manage them. For example, going back to school may bring about relief and anxiety or excitement and sadness. Helping your child identify and navigate their emotions can ease some of their stress.
After school, it's good to talk about the day during dinner, so kids have a structured place to sort out their feelings. An easy way of doing this is to ask everyone to talk about their favorite and least favorite parts of the day. When our kids were young, this was their favorite part of dinner!
Parenting Strategy #3: Get Organized for the School Year
Use back-to-school shopping to understand your child more. For example, are their preferred clothing styles changing? What color notebook do they like? Do they want to bring their lunch from home or purchase it from school? Engaging them in small decisions is a way to connect, give them power in an appropriate way, and get them back into a routine.
Set reasonable expectations about schedules. Let kids know what they have coming up in the week for extracurricular activities. A family calendar on the wall lets everyone know one another's plans. Be mindful of not taking on more commitments than the family can comfortably handle.
Start bedtime routines at least a week before school starts, if possible, to get kids accustomed to going to bed and waking up earlier. Bath time and reading before bed can help them relax and unwind. Organize outfits, backpacks, lunches, and gym bags the night before to avoid missing items! Start new rituals, such as riding bikes together to school. Routines and rituals are very supportive and reassuring for children of all ages.
Most importantly, don't forget to take time for yourself. Managing your stress levels helps set the tone for the rest of the family. So, soak up the last bit of summer, and get ready to nestle in.
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