As kids return back to school, they’re expected to feel a certain sense excitement, trepidation, and stress. But they’re not the only ones who need to navigate the emotional turmoil of re-engaging with the education system. Parents also feel back-to-school excitement and anxiety and stress. These emotions tend to get wrapped up in paperwork, but they are not merely the product of logistical hurdles. They are the rational or irrational byproduct of separation and, in some cases, the logical side-effect of legitimate concern. No matter where they come from, one thing is clear: They need to be managed so they don’t affect the kids.
“Feeling that stress, feeling that anxiety, having those fears is completely normal because you’re a parent, and that comes from wanting your children to succeed,” says Stacey Ojeda, a licensed marriage and family therapist with a private practice in Montrose, California. Ojeda notes that many parents might worry they may not have given their kids the skills necessary to be alone, make friends or sit and learn, which might reflect poorly on them as a parent.
While it’s normal to have worries, Ojeda says, parents might want to better manage their anxiety by recognizing what they’re saying about themselves. It’s not particularly helpful for a parent to rehash everything that they could or should have done. The kid didn’t get 100 hours or reading in over the summer? It’s okay. Purchased the wrong eraser? Take a breath. “Make sure you’re being kind to yourself,” says Ojeda. “Trust in yourself that you’ve done a good job.”
On the other side of that coin, Ojeda recommends trying not to live too far in the future. Worrying about what could come, can increase anxiety. So it’s a matter of trying to live in the present as much as possible and take things as they come.
“Talk to the other parents around you,” says Ojeda. “You’re going to see that you’re not the only one freaking out, which is the best source of support that we can get.” Another benefit of talking to other parents? A better insight into what’s happening in the school and the ability to pick up on things a parent might have missed.
Networking with a kid’s teacher can also help reduce parental back-to-school anxiety. After all, they’re the ones spending the day with the kid, so it can ease anxiety to know the person on the inside. But Ojeda notes that managing the stress and anxiety isn’t all about stuffing down, or turning away from, the emotions a parent might be feeling as a kid goes back to school.
“Allow yourself to feel the feelings that come up when your kid is going back to school,” she says. “Find that balance between distraction and feeling. Designate a time where you can fall apart and pull it back together.”
But there’s a difference between run-of-the-mill stress and anxiety based on uncertainty and a psychological issue that requires professional intervention. The first sign that anxiety and stress is clinically significant is when it lasts longer than six months (so beyond the first week or two of school) and affects work or family life. “Once it stops your work functioning, or social functioning or sleep because you’re just so worried that something might happen to your kid at school, those are warning signs,” says Ojeda.
And if those warning signs do pop up, or if they’re noticed in a spouse. It might be time to find professional help. Consider it like finding an emotional tutor that can help a parent manage back-to-school stress.