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Surviving the Back-to-School Blues

A parenting expert explains how to readjust to life after Summer


For families with school-age children, September is the real New Year’s. As our children return to school, parents face a new fall routine, and we sigh with a mixture of sadness and relief. Children are excited about buying new pencils and notebooks, and reuniting with classmates, but also anxious about new teachers and schedules. How can families reestablish our routines to make the back-to-school transition as smooth as possible?

First of all, acknowledge the stress this time of year brings. Getting through it requires fortitude on everyone’s part. When things get bumpy, don’t panic; everyone is trying to adjust to a new rhythm. Last September, Lisa Andrews, a Walnut Creek mom, helped her three kids cope with three big rites of passage: settling into preschool, kindergarten, and middle school. “It was so stressful,” she says, “I didn’t even send Christmas cards.”

For many families, simply getting everyone out the door each morning leaves parents and children alike gasping. To avoid getting bogged down in a chaotic morass, take some time now to harmonize your routines, before you get locked into a new timetable. Write out a schedule with your children’s help. Make sure they feel involved in the decision-making. Brain­storm with them about how to leave the house on time with everyone relatively happy. Plan incentives for younger children, like reading a book of their choice if they get dressed and eat by a certain time. A similar schedule can help make evening routines smoother as well.

Talking about fears can also help a child adjust to the new challenges that September brings. Last year my grandson feared he would have to leave his house at 4 a.m. to make it to his new kindergarten on time. His parents reassured him that he had to be at school only 20 minutes earlier than he had arrived at preschool. They also asked him about other anxieties he might have about the new demands of kindergarten. Opening such a dialogue is crucial.

Reuniting in a meaningful way with your child at the end of the day is also important, because connection and communication are the foundation of positive growth. The dinner table is a good place for a family reunion. The meal can serve as a respite before everyone launches into their evening activities. One family I know has a dinner ritual where each family member recounts the best and worst thing that happened that day. Another family creates a nightly gratitude list. Simply asking open-ended questions like “What happened in French today?” or “Who did you eat lunch with?” help elicit more than a one-syllable response.

We may feel discouraged, even hurt, when older kids snub our inquiries. But don’t be fooled into thinking your child doesn’t need you. Whether our children cling or retreat this month, they are simply expressing their anxiety about growing up.

Other transitions, such as switching schools, are much more challenging. Thankfully, schools today are eager to collaborate with parents to support children through changes. Kathleen Scott, principal of Walnut Creek’s Parkmead Elementary School, says schools want to hear from families who have special concerns. “We want parents to come to us in a problem-solving mode,” she explains. “We will work to get the child in the right class, and watch closely to make sure that she’s coping.” Building bridges between school and home helps everyone involved, even when a child is feeling fine.

Let’s cherish our families this September. I remember my tiny daughter leaving the car door wide open as she dashed to the kindergarten steps because she was excited to get to class. Let’s toast such an ability to face unfamiliar situations with courage.


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