We’ve made it to the end of September, and at this point, most children have returned to school. The start of the academic year can be an exciting time for kids– back to school shopping, meeting the teachers, finding out which friends are in their classes. But it can also be a challenging time for kids and parents.
Younger children may suffer from separation anxiety, which is characterized by anxiety brought on by being separated from parents/caregivers. Children who have separation anxiety have a difficult time saying goodbye when it’s time to go separate ways, but also have a really hard time preparing for the separation.
School-aged children typically outgrow separation anxiety, but may have a hard time managing the transition back to school. After being home with family during the summer, it might be challenging to spend all day outside of the home. Although many parents do a great job of maintaining some type of summer routine, it’s not typically as regimented as the school-year routine, so many kids find it difficult to get back into the routine of waking up and going to bed early, sitting in a classroom for several hours, doing homework and projects, and other typical school requirements.
It’s not necessarily that kids don’t enjoy school — some do and others don’t, for many reasons– but the transition back into the routine requires some mental, emotional, and physical “work.”
Don’t be surprised if the first few weeks, or even the first couple of months, back to school don’t go as smoothly as you planned. It’s normal for everyone involved to feel a bit of anxiety, frustration, or loss of control during a time of transition.
You can help your kids adjust to the “back to school” season a few ways. First, be patient and remember that we all handle transition differently. If you’ve got more than one child, this is certainly true. What may be effortless for one child, could be quite challenging for the other when it comes to transitioning back to school. Second, help your child name what they’re feeling. Are they anxious because they’re afraid the work is too hard? Lonely because they don’t have any close friends in class? Sad to be away from family or the pet all day? Naming the emotion and where it comes from helps us feel that we have some ownership and authority over what we’re feeling. Third, help your kids identify their resources at school, which can ease with the transition (friends, teachers, teacher aides, support staff, study and time management tools, etc.). Where and how can they receive support when they need it?
It’s also important that we teach children skills to be able to manage these types of transition and to gain/develop important life skills. Figuring out what they have control over is a big one. It may be something as simple as having control over what they take for lunch, or something more complex such as who they choose to be friends with. In any given situation, no matter how out-of-control we may feel, there’s always some element that’s within our control. We also must teach kids to learn how to modify the situation where and when possible. For example, if your teenager finds it really difficult to get along with their math teacher, can the schedule be changed? If not, is there an assistant in the class they can go to for help? If not, can they get math help outside of class?
And of course, sometimes difficult situations can’t be modified. What do we do then? Try to reframe the situation and look at it from a different perspective. We certainly have control over our outlook on life and whether or not we choose to let difficult situations own us. For older kids or teens, this could be a great opportunity for them to learn soft skills like working with others and managing expectations versus reality.
Parents can think back on what these transitions were like for them, listen empathically to their children’s concerns, and remind them “We’re in your corner. We’re on your team.” Then, parents and children can strategize and think creatively together to manage the transition back to school.
Remember, transitions don’t last forever. Eventually, we learn to integrate the changes into our lives, and it becomes a normal part of life. Your children will find their rhythm and their routine, it may just take some time. The important thing is that they know their parents hear them, support them, and love them through it.
(If your child is struggling to manage the transition back to school, feel free to reach out to me for more information about counseling or parent consultations.)