7 Back to School Tips for Parents Helping their Kids Thrive

back to school

It's that time of year again where parents might be singing Green Day's, Wake Me Up When September Ends. The start of September marks the start of another school year for many. If you're a parent who has previously struggled with your kids' back to school adjustment, then this blog is for you.

Topics Covered:

  • Common humanity: shedding light on parent shame and guilt
  • Tips and strategies for approaching the transition back to school

Common Humanity 

In the age of social media, we're exposed to the, perhaps, over-abundance of mental health content online. We're given sometimes conflicting messages about how we should live, raise kids, eat, move our bodies, and express ourselves.

Although much of the content online is well-intentioned and aimed at doing right, it fails to leave room for individual, cultural, socio-economical, and capacity differences.

Parents who engage with social media, or those with involved family dynamics and friendships, may be particularly vulnerable to felt experiences of shame and guilt. Parent shame and guilt is just what it sounds like; parents who feel shame and guilt related to parenting and child-rearing experiences.

If you're a parent, perhaps you can take a moment to reflect on times you have felt shame or guilt for something you did involving your child(ren). Was this shame or guilt reflective of an important value of yours that you acted against? Or was it imposed on you by others' judgment and societal expectations?

Nobody is perfect. We all make mistakes. We don't always get to see others' mountains when we're focused on our own. 

Parents commonly report feeling shame or guilt around:

  • Time spent with their kids (i.e., too much or too little)
  • Type of engagement with their kids (i.e., tired, disengaged, worn out, irritable)
  • Providing enough emotional support or support developing skills
  • Not doing enough or being enough
  • Any others you would add?

Parent Shame and Guilt

Guilt is a feeling of "I did something bad". It is behaviour based.
Shame is a feeling of "I am bad". It is absolute and dismissive of context and positive qualities.

parent shame

These are unpleasant feelings, and yet, like any other human emotion they are informative. Guilt is a reflection of something important to you. Let's explain this with a thought experiment:

Try recalling the last time you experienced parent shame or guilt. Remember the context of the situation and why you felt guilty. Try to examine the feeling with curiosity. If it could speak, what would it say?

You have a couple options for navigating this feeling:

  1. Buy into the judgmental inner dialogue about how you're a "No good parent".
  2. Wonder what value of yours did you act out of line with that prompted you to feel guilty?

Perhaps you were late picking your child up from school. Maybe you value timelines, responsibility, and you care about how your child might have felt.

Perhaps you snapped or raised your voice at your child. You likely value kindness, compassion, and peace.

Perhaps your work requires you to get home after their bedtime. You might value quality time and being present in their lives.

What did you notice about the feeling of shame or guilt once you started reflecting on it through this lens? Depending on the situation the intensity of the feeling may have stayed the same, dissipated, or softened. It shifts the energy away from "I'm a bad parent" to "I care about cultivating X in parenthood, so if I cannot do it in this context, how else can I show my child that I care?"

Ultimately, you will likely be able to be a more present, happier, and calmer parent to your child when you are kinder, understanding, and more forgiving of yourself. This exercise can be done for any situation.

Tips for Parents Adjusting Back to School 

  1. Self-soothe and regulate your emotions.
    Help yourself so that you can help others. Try do what you can to manage your stress, learn how to be patient with yourself, and self-soothe to help you sail through stormy waters of transition in your household when going back to school.
    Book an appointment with one of our therapists now to help you develop an action plan.  
  2. Communicate.
    Your kids may or may not be aware that the next school year is looming. Having open conversations around what kinds of changes to expect, their worries or concerns, and validating their emotions can help them feel cared for and secure returning back to school, 
  3. Empathize. 
    It's been a long time since you were in elementary school. What might seem easy to you could be your child's biggest fear. Try to put yourself in their shoes and understand their feelings about the changes when going back to school. Compassion might also help you soften frustration when emotions run high. 
  4. Develop a coping tool box. 
    Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) suggests building a "distress tolerance kit" that's readily accessible. Building a kit with your child can be a creative bonding experience, where you normalize responding to difficult emotions in healthy ways. Examples of items found in a distress tolerance kit include those that target the five senses, such as: lip balm, hand lotion, gum or mints, a small note of encouragement from a loved one, a beloved object or toy, a fidget or stress toy, and emergency numbers. 
  5. Make a visible calendar. 
    Visual calendars can help with mental preparation. Anyone can add important events to aide with the back to school transition. 
  6. Reminders of resilience. 
    Perhaps the entire family could benefit from the reminders that you've been here before, you can do hard things, and change eventually settles. 
  7. Re-establish bedtime and mealtime routines at least one week before school starts. 
    This is an ideal; it could very well be impractical for many. That's okay. A back to school routine helps us buffer against uncertainty and stressors, as it provides structure and predictability. If you don't get there, don't stress it. Try to be mindful of the importance of routine in your child's life and slowly work towards it. 

References

  1. Back to school can be a stressful time. How to help your kids transition. (2023, July 17). American Psychological Association. Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/topics/children/school-anxiety
  2. National Association of School Psychologists. (2017). Back-to-school transitions: Tips for parents. [Handout]. Bethesda, MD: Author.
  3. Louis, G. (2017, August 31). Tips for parents to help their kids return to school. Psychology Today. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mind-matters/201708/tips-parents-help-their-kids-return-school