How parents can cope with their own back-to-school anxiety

As a psychologist who specializes in working with anxious parents, and as a mom who specializes in little boys (I’ve got two), I can tell you that those back-to-school ads featuring ecstatic parents who gleefully lob pencils and glue into their shopping carts at the office supply stores aren’t entirely accurate. Back-to-school time can be even more depressing and anxiety-provoking for parents than it is for kids.

Last year at this time, it was me in that big-box store, buying school supplies for my son, who was about to start kindergarten. Far from prancing down the aisles, I was in tears as I struggled to pick out the perfect cool-looking Minions notebook that would simultaneously cement his social status and inspire thoughtful journal entries.

What I’ve found, both personally and professionally, is that parents are often more concerned about how their kids will fare in the upcoming school year than their kids are. At the same time, there are very few resources to which stressed parents can turn. Most articles I see posted around this time of year focus on how we can support our kids through the transition to a new school year. There’s relatively little information out there about how parents can best support themselves.

When I work with parental back-to-school anxiety (both my own and my clients’), I recommend parents try out the following 7 cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) strategies:

#1: Allow yourself to feel stressed. This may seem like a no-brainer, but so many parents with whom I work are so fixated on preparing their kids for the upcoming school year that they ignore signs of their own stress (poor sleep, poor appetite, feeling overwhelmed). It’s important to admit that you’re stressed, because then you can do something about it. Remember that transitions for kids are also transitions for parents. And transitions can inspire a range of emotions, both positive and negative.

#2: Break the to-do list into steps. Parents are often overwhelmed by all of the things they have to purchase and organize before school begins. Personally, I think that the office supply store back-to-school commercial would be most accurate if it showed bewildered parents poring over a lengthy, confusing school supplies list.

There’s lots of stuff to be done for back-to-school, so why not create a back-to-school to-do list that you can move through over the next several weeks? You won’t feel overwhelmed if you assign yourself a specific task for each week (maybe one week is school supplies, one is clothes). And don’t be afraid to delegate! If your kid is old enough, he/she can get online and pick out his/her own school supplies and clothes and shoes (with your final approval, of course).

#3: Confront your worries with the “worst case scenario” technique. Many parents approach the coming school year with a laundry list of worries about their child. One way to approach the worry list is by using the “worst case scenario technique.” Ask yourself three questions:

  1. What is the worst-case scenario?
  2. What is the likelihood that this worst-case scenario will come to pass?
  3. How would I manage it if it did?

So, for example, a client once shared that she was worried because her son was assigned a teacher with a reputation for being particularly strict and punitive. Her worst-case scenario was that her son would become terrified of school because of this teacher and would cry every morning. Upon reflection, she admitted that the likelihood of this scenario was pretty low, as her son had a history of adapting to a variety of different types of teachers. Nevertheless, she thought through a number of different strategies she might use for improving her son’s situation, should the worst-case scenario come to pass.

Clients generally tell me one of two things after completing this exercise: that the worst-case scenario they fear is very unlikely; and/or that they can think of a plan to help them and their children manage it effectively. This often helps alleviate some of their back-to-school anxiety.

#4: Take care of yourself. It is OK to take some time off from all the back-to-school prep work you’re doing for your kids. Go see a movie. Or take a nap. Or take a run. Focusing on yourself for a little bit does not mean that you’ve stopped focusing on your kids.

#5: Consider what you can and cannot control. We all want to create the ideal environment for our kids, whether at home or at school. But the truth is, there is only so much we can control. We cannot manage our children’s environment when our children are in school without us. So, for example, we can’t follow our kid into school the first day and change his seat if he’s seated next to the class clown.

Try to focus on those situations in which you can exert some control. For example, if you are worried that the special accommodations your child requires at school will not be implemented correctly, speak with her guidance counselor or learning specialist ahead of time to make sure the appropriate accommodations are in place. Needless to say, your time is much better spent focusing on things you can actually change.

#6: Think about the longer-term. Sure, the idea of starting a new school year is daunting now. But how will it look in October? Will you even remember the specific type of notebook you bought for your child, or your fears about her new classroom situation? Remember that back-to-school transitions happen very quickly, and before you know it, everything that was once new has become just another part of the routine.

#7: Teach these techniques to your kids. If your kids have back-to-school anxiety, try out these techniques along with them. Modeling effective coping is a great way to teach kids how to cope on their own. Your kids will see you managing your own worry and grow confident that they can manage theirs, too.

Remember: this time of year can be as tough (if not more tough) for parents as it is for kids. If you’re one of those moms and dads struggling with back-to-school anxiety, take a break from the back-to-school preparations and try out some coping strategies. I’ll be doing them right along with you, as I pick out the perfect Ninjago notebook for my son. I’m told the Minions are “so kindergarten.”

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I’m Ilyse Dobrow DiMarco, Ph.D., aka DrCBTMom. combines the expert advice of a self-help book with the warmth and readability of a mommy blog.
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