Around 75% of mothers and 80% of fathers in the United States work while also juggling family responsibilities.
This is never an easy task despite the time of year, however, the "back to school" period tends to temporarily increase stress for both parents and children — due to issues like schedule management, finding before/after school child care, social anxiety, and lack of time for enough sleep or relaxation.
Why Back-to-School Stirs Up Stress
If you're like most parents, you may struggle with finding the time to prepare meals, clean the home, chaperone kids to after-school activities, and make sure everyone completes homework and gets to sleep on time.
Another reason that parents struggle with this transition is because of how their children may react negatively to all the changes, especially if they're prone to anxiety or low self-esteem. Children and teens are more likely to feel anxious, restless, irritable, and withdrawn when beginning a new school year compared to mid-year, and some might also experience digestive and sleep issues tied to stress.
Unfortunately, children feeling overwhelmed by school and social demands are at greater risk for poor school performance, difficulty maintaining friendships, and even depression and eating disorders.
Some surveys have found that following all of the turbulent Covid-19 pandemic changes experienced by families throughout 2020, the return to school in the fall of 2021 may be particularly stressful — due to ever-changing Covid guidelines and coping with issues like school closures and illnesses at home.
How To Start the School Year Off Right
Here are tips for making the back-to-school transition a smoother experience for the whole family:
1. Help Your Kid(s) Feel More Prepared
The best thing you can do to reduce your kid's anxiety is to talk them through what they might expect from a new school year, which means listening non-judgmentally to their concerns and doing your best to answer any questions they may have.
Try driving by or visiting their new building, especially if you're in a new school district. Plan get-togethers with friends before school starts. Make sure they have all the supplies they'll need for the first day, and talk about any concerns over changes in workload and scheduling so they don't feel overwhelmed.
If possible, arrange your work hours so that you're able to spend some time with your children in the morning and at night over dinner and before they go to sleep, which can help reduce overall anxiety.
Prior to going to sleep, get in the habit of everyone preparing for the next morning by laying out their clothes, packing their bags, organizing any paperwork or supplies.
2. Learn to Say No and Cut Back
One of the main complaints from parents in 2021 is a lack of time and an overwhelming schedule. Try writing out your weekly family schedule on a calendar so you can identify which obligations are not necessary and can be removed, such as a least favorite extracurricular activity, exercise class, etc.
Staying organized with a calendar is also helpful for reducing forgetfulness and feelings of overwhelm. More clarity and structure equals a better sense of control.
If your budget allows for it, consider hiring a sitter to help you drive kids to events which can free up needed time at home. You can also try asking a trusted friend(s) to work out a carpool schedule with you which will make these tasks easier.
Once your calendar and the to-do list are trimmed down, use the time to plan out homework and mealtimes, such as where and what time these happen each day, this way everyone understands the expectations.
3. Plan Meals Ahead
The whole family benefits from getting enough sleep and eating regular balanced meals, which are important for maintaining a positive mood, concentration, and overall health.
If you're only able to cook and prepare one or two meals per day, try making it either breakfast or dinner so the family can sit down to eat together (lunch can often be bought at school).
Some fast recipe ideas include sheet pan pancakes, overnight oats, fruit salad, and scrambled eggs, homemade pizza, casseroles, and sheet pan chicken/fish with roasted veggies or potatoes.
Choose one or two nights per week when you go grocery shopping with a list of what you'll need for the week's meals. Write down meal ideas and ingredients beforehand so you don't leave without something essential. Opting for grocery delivery services can also help make this happen.
You might choose to get your kids involved with planning meals and packing school lunches ahead of time. Try cooking or baking together and coming up with recipe ideas as a family, which can help the kids feel more in control and reduce your responsibilities.
4. Prioritize Quality Sleep and Down Time (For You and The Kids!)
During the last few weeks of the summer, start establishing a school year bedtime routine. Create a relaxing routine at night that helps calm the family, such as taking a walk together, cleaning up, coloring, or watching a favorite show (just try limiting screen time close to bedtime).
Stick to a regular bedtime and wake time as much as possible, even on the weekends since this helps regulate everyone's circadian rhythms (aka "internal clocks").
Once or twice a week you can also plan a special time to do something fun together at night, which gives the family something to look forward to each week. Try a weekly night out at an arcade, park, book store, or favorite restaurant if it fits your budget.
When the weather allows, head outdoors before nighttime to give your family opportunities to burn off steam, such as by spending time in nature. Having unstructured "free time" outdoors after school or playing sports as a family is a great way to do this; you can also bike ride together, go fishing, garden, take pictures or paint outdoors, etc.