Gearing Up: Back to School Readiness Starts with Parents! By: Anastasia Sullwold Ristau, PhD, LP

I don’t know about you, but for me – this time of year sneaks up on me every dang year. One minute I’m sinking into an enjoyable rhythm of summer and then BAM – the realization that Fall is just around the corner. AACK! My mind fast-forwards to the transition back to school which is sure to come full force with a blink of an eye. Adulting can be so hard.  It starts about mid-July – like a cruel light switch — media blasts us with “back to school” prompts, stores abruptly stock shelves with school supplies, and before you know it, you’re surrounded with all the rest of those familiar smack-you-in-the-face reminders – Giddyup! School is coming soon!

Now, to some, this is an exciting time and in fact something they look forward to. But to many others, this represents the beginning of a series of strong waves of thoughts and emotions. This wake-you-out-of-sleep anxiety starts as a slow churn inside your mind and gut and, if ignored, grows out of control rather quickly.  The mental lists begin, all of the tasks to do, supplies to gather, clothing to buy, what-if’s to fester, etc.  All of this can all take a toll on us parents, but it doesn’t seem fair that we would ruin half of our summer worrying about the inevitable transition back into school! Worse yet — if we’re not careful, our own stress and worry spills over so that it begins to dampen our kids’ final weeks of summer too!  How about not this year. Let’s just not!

Perhaps we can maintain the joy of summer through the last possible drops and still prepare for that transition back to school. I mean, here’s the thing – if we are really honest and paid attention, this is all predictable. While it’s tempting to be frustrated by it all (e.g., “I really thought I’d get it figured out this year! Ugh!!”), instead, I propose that we think of this as a valuable opportunity to set into motion actions that will promote health and psychological growth.

Here are a few proactive parent-minded suggestions that will pack a powerful punch in building an all-too-important mental health buffer during these tough times of the year.  When put into play within a parenting framework built with intention and purpose, little things go a long way.

Parent well-being is the family’s anchor. Start with parent self-awareness and parent self-care.

This may surprise you, but indeed, I would place parent well-being front and center when it comes to challenging times.  It’s not always fair, but often it does ring true: as parents, our own stress level becomes the set-point for the entire family. Our kids are sponges! They feel it, they see it, they hear it, they experience it right along with us. It makes sense, then, that the point at which we cross that line of stress feeling tolerable to now wreaking havoc is a threshold level impacted family-wide by a variety of factors. Parent stress levels often begin to amp up well before kids’ own stress level does the same. How a parent handles this, what they say, how they say it, all impacts and influences the kids’ own stress response, thought process, and emotions.  Does this mean a stressed out kid means a stressed out parent or vice versa? Not necessarily. But certainly there is influence from both directions, and even more certainly, it is well worth carving out a little time to address this.

  • Turn down the volume on that parent guilt! Okay okay, so your summer hopes and goals were not met or you are neck-deep in those feelings of failure, should-haves, would-haves, or could-haves. So what? You can’t rewind time, and very likely all of those guilt ridden thoughts are simply that, thoughts. Skewed, murky thoughts. Doesn’t seem right to let these guilt-ridden thoughts outweigh all of the more positive, actual memories you created throughout these experiences with your family this summer.  Let’s be kind to ourselves, parents. And for goodness sake, be kind to each other. In the midst of all the challenges we face in the world today, the least we can do for ourselves is choose to build each other up and be a village. We deserve this gift.
  • Stay aware. Awareness helps us to better manage our own stress and anxiety, especially when it comes to that long to-do list. More importantly, awareness helps keep the impact on our kids’ own anticipatory stress and anxiety at a healthy level. When we are aware of its presence, we can identify stress which then allows us to cope with it before it gets too big. We need stress, but it serves us best when we can stay out in front of it and manage it well.
  • Promote the here and now for your kids. They still have some summer yet to enjoy! Let’s keep them focused on all the awesome goodness that can come in that time. If you must, keep the reference to school light and fun, if possible.
  • Practice self-care: a little self-care goes a long way. Pause a few times a day to simply become aware of your thoughts and stress level. Feelin’ that pressure? Carve out a mini-break to pause a bit longer and focus upon your breathing, slowing it down to a comfortable, peaceful pace and stay paused for 5-10 minutes, maybe longer if you can. I know, I know – this sounds great in theory but in reality for most of us feels like an impossibility! Trust me – small efforts promote big payoffs. You will find more value in this than you might imagine. If you can’t imagine doing this for yourselves, then take these steps for your family. Modeling good self-care becomes a great opportunity to show your kids the importance of healthy self-awareness and coping. Self-care for parents is beneficial on so many levels for us, for our kids, and for our entire family unit. Taking care of you is taking care of them, too.  Science backs this up –it’s legit, people! I see it in my clinical work with families. Every. Day.

Attend to Parenting Unity. 

  • Schedule a “parent meeting” – two of you in one household, or if co-parenting across two separate homes, consider holding this with all parents involved across households (provided you have an amicable co-parenting relationship!).
    • What do you hope your kids can do by the end of this school year?
    • Determine the top 3-5 goals you both/all envision for your family this school year, from a parent standpoint. Brainstorm, eliminate, agree.
  • This will provide an anchor for future decisions and responses to tough parenting situations throughout the year.
  • Minimizes arguing, bargaining, and manipulating — allows you all to be consistent and persistent in a more emotionally neutral way.
  • Will provide framework to address challenges with kids throughout the year
  • Examples of parenting goals:
    • Kids independently wake up and get ready for school with parent help of just 1 task (age dependent!!)
    • Homework time feels cooperative rather than like a battle
    • Parents and kids will use self-calming strategies rather than yelling or arguing
    • Kids will be more involved with meals/food
    • Kids’ bedtime routine will be a connecting, calming time and will last less than 1 hour from start to sleep

Click here for part two – getting the entire family on board!

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Dr. A is a clinical psychologist and clinical supervisor for the PrairieCare After School Intensive Outpatient Programs (Behavior Development Program for youth and Healthy Emotions Program for Teens