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Back to School Anxiety:
Strategies to Help You Cope

The anticipation of school brings excitement and anxiety. Summer is over and the responsibilities of homework schedules, tests and structured days return. Parents and children experience the stress of academic and social pressures. Anticipating change can spell the difference between feeling settled by the end of fall term or experiencing distress. You can stem the tide of stress by preparing yourself and your family for the transition back to school in the following ways.


Creating a household schedule to deal with the increased workload is a must! Make schedules your friend, not your enemy. Spend 20 minutes preparing lunches, getting clothes set out to be worn the next day and anticipating travel arrangements to and from school. Older children (ages 10 and up) can take on some of these tasks themselves, but may still need your support initiating this kind of structure. Start with the basic needs, but do not stop there.

All children need help organizing their homework/study schedules. Helping them do so may ensure that they do not fall behind in the beginning of the school year, which could have a negative effect on their learning and self-esteem the rest of the school year. Sit down with your children -- even your teenagers -- and make a list of what back-to-school supplies are needed. Include clothes, shoes, binders, organizers, pencils, file folders and tabs. Make a trip to the store together and involve your child in picking out his or her favorite colored folders and latest style clothing. This will help your child become excited about the school year and motivated toward success.

Before school begins, sit down again with your children individually to help them develop a system for success that works. Use colored dividers and tabs for different subjects. Utilize pockets in folders for incoming and outgoing homework. Let them know that their parents are there to help them put school papers in proper places when the school year begins, and assist them in anticipating their needs for scheduling study time and developing healthy study habits.


The best-laid plans can lead to naught if follow-up does not occur. Besides checking in with your child after the first day of school, schedule time to review his or her classes and the responsibilities for the week, the month or the semester (for high school students). Responsibilities and expectations for academic work increase with the grade. Junior high and high school students are particularly vulnerable if they are not well organized. Since the hormones are raging, and social pressures are distracting, these students may particularly need your help -- even though they are older!

Check in each week to review your child's ability to use the system you have developed together. Attend back-to-school night in the fall to make contact with you child's teacher(s) and be in touch with the physical environment. By making it a point to be connected to their child's school life, parents glean insight and gain invaluable information about how to assist children throughout the year. School events, activities and teacher-parent conferences provide avenues for contact. Use these opportunities!

Staying in touch with your child's school environment allows you to be ready to troubleshoot obstacles that arise, particularly if you are trying to turn around a child's previous negative experience. Consider tutoring resources (sometimes available for free during lunchtime or study periods). You may see your job as "secretary" to your child's needs in some cases. Some children are more capable of organization than others. Those who need greater assistance may require that you connect them with resources that are available in the school environment but which they have simply ignored.


Regular checking-in about social activities, sports and academics can take place in the evenings, particularly if you work outside the home full-time. Make dinnertime a place to gather and review your days. This is your time to nurture and be nurtured through a sense of belonging, so make them positive interactions. In other words, check in with your youngsters and your spouse, but keep the goal of your interaction supportive and nurturing. Protect this time from negative stresses by devoting separate time to the specifics of a crisis or a highly stressful problem later that evening.

Bedtime is a good opportunity to make yourself emotionally available to your youngsters and your teens. A back rub for your tired athlete, for example, is a good way to hear about your child's thoughts, challenges and dilemmas. Although it may sound as though you would be too tired by the end of the day to nurture another, try it! You will be amazed at the amount you get back from this kind of emotional connecting with your child. Work through any initial resistance (tiredness). You will be rewarded with the energy that comes from positive family relationships!


Expect some obstacle to arise about a month to six weeks after school begins. Whatever adjustment difficulties are present for your child will become evident in some form. A breakdown in the system of organization you have created together means you need to reassess and reestablish this structure. Homework or study problems or relationship problems with authorities or peers will likely cause some kind of stress for you and your child at this time, if they are issues. The key here is to EXPECT it!

Do not panic. Take October in stride. Your ability to approach this period calmly is a must. Psychologically, it may also be a time of stress for those affected by the shortening of the daylight hours. The last "feel" of summer is gone and winter lies ahead. Make warm fires and take long baths. Turn to your spouse and friends for comfort and support. You will find that if you anticipate this likely "slump," you are more likely to have the reserves necessary to help your children face their problems in a positive way. This also sets the tone for the rest of the year. Obstacles that are handled calmly and thoroughly in fall create a clearer passage for enjoyment of the springtime!


When I was young, I read a quote somewhere that said, "Organization is the highest level of creativity." I had previously thought of organizational activities as bland, even boring, but somewhat necessary. Yet, the phrase rang in my mind, and over the years I have come to understand organizational energy as a truly generative, life-giving force.

Invite your children to participate in the excitement of organization. Creating a sense of order can help them enjoy a healthy balance of work and play. They will learn that schedules can be their "friend," too. Healthy organization, follow through and troubleshooting can provide children (and parents!) with a sense of accomplishment in feeling prepared instead of overwhelmed by the demands of the back-to-school transition.


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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