Last week still felt like relaxed summer; but this past week–with teacher meeting, classroom visiting, back-to-school shopping, PowerSchool bus route checking, sport practicing, schedule prepping and every other possible activity–stress levels have already started to climb higher.
Whether it’s the first day of kindergarten, returning from a long summer vacation or going to a new school, back to school time can be overwhelming for many parents, children and teens. As the summer comes to an end and the time to return to work or school draws near, many Americans are likely to find their stress levels increase, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). The transition from summer to school time can test families’ coping skills in dealing with adjustments such as new teachers, new classrooms and new schools as well as parents struggling with the return to hectic work schedules.
What’s more, that increased stress can push people toward using unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, comfort eating, inactivity and drinking to manage their stress. The APA warns that reliance on such behavior can lead to long-term, serious health problems. The APA conducted a “Stress in America” survey in 2012, which found that approximately 75-percent of Americans report that they experience physical or non-physical symptoms of stress including irritability or anger, fatigue, feeling overwhelmed and changes in sleeping habits.
“Returning to work after a vacation, transitioning your children to a new school, even fighting a busier rush hour as schools reopen, can all contribute to an increased stress level,” Dr. Elaine Ducharme, a psychologist in Glastonbury, CT said. “People who cope with stress in unhealthy ways may alleviate symptoms of stress in the short term, but end up creating significant personal health problems over time, and, ironically, more stress.”
Wilton resident and psychologist Miki Lasher, Ph.D, will be president of the Connecticut Psychological Association (CPA) next year. She has some strategies for families to help reduce and manage stress during the back-to-school transition. She suggests that parents take a patient approach with their children through the first couple of weeks.
“Kids need time to settle into the routine, so don’t try to plan events, like parties, that might be over stimulating. Starting a difficult new activity, or changing medications is also tough. Kids might also be nervous and not want to talk about it, or even recognize it in themselves. So they might be extra touchy, angry, or restless. Try not to react when they push your buttons, give yourself a minute to process before responding at times like this. It might be good to try having a small treat and waiting until you’ve finished it before answering, which could work for kids too,” she says.
Some of the other suggestions from the CPA and APA include:
- Identify your family’s stressors: What events or situations seem to lead to stressful feelings? Are they related to a return to work, getting the children to school, family responsibilities or something else? Do you engage in unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, drinking or eating poorly to cope with your stress? Do you lose patience with your children or spouse when you feel overwhelmed? Are your coping behaviors different during the school year than in the summer time? Do your children act up or become anxious in response to the changes in their life?
- Talk to your children: Discuss their concerns and worries about the start of a new school year or a new school. Talk about their expectations or fears prior to the first day. If you can, visit the school beforehand with your child so that he or she feels more comfortable on the first day. And after school starts, take time to listen to your children and discuss their day at school and any issues they may have.
- Spend time together as a family: Take time to relax with your spouse and children, eating meals together, scheduling a weekly family game night or engaging in weekend activities such as a bicycle ride, a visit to a museum or a picnic at the local park.
- Analyze your schedule: Assess your priorities and delegate whatever tasks you can (e.g., order a healthy take out dinner after a busy day, share household responsibilities). Eliminate tasks that are not essential and make more time for those that are to reduce anxiety. Make time for yourself at least two or three times a week. Even ten minutes a day of personal time can help refresh your mental outlook and slow down your body’s stress response systems. Remember that taking care of yourself helps you to take care of others.
- Ask for support: Accepting help and support from those who care about you can help alleviate stress. Perhaps a family member or friend can help with the school run once a week, take your child to soccer practice or simply be there to listen to you? Build a support network from your friends and family. If you or your child continues to feel overwhelmed by stress, you may want to talk with a psychologist who can help address the emotions behind your or your child’s behavior, manage stress and change unhealthy behaviors.
“While the return to school and work is often a stressor for many families juggling multiple responsibilities, in the long term it can be beneficial to return to a regular routine,” Ducharme said. “What is important is to recognize how your family reacts to changes in its routine, take steps to manage your stress in healthy ways and ask for help when you need it.”
To learn more about stress and mind/body health, visit www.apa.org/helpcenter and follow @APAHelpCenter on Twitter.
This article includes information provided by the Connecticut Psychological Association.