Back to School Stress

Funny how when we need sleep most, we can often find ourselves sleep-deprived.
08/27/2012 02:03 pm ET Updated Oct 27, 2012

As most children know -- not to mention their moms and dads -- "back to school" can be a time of excitement, yes, but also of daunting anxiety and exhausting stress.

Across the country, and indeed the world, fall finds countless families buying new clothes and school supplies while dialing back their alarm clocks to cope with the sudden avalanche of back-to-school activities and necessities. It's funny how when we need sleep most, we can often find ourselves sleep-deprived. Back-to-school can easily turn into just such a time.

Yet no matter how many times moms and dads have been through it, even planned for it, every year seems to bring its own, unique set of opportunities, challenges and discoveries, as well as significant worries and stresses.

And if grownups can find the fall challenging, just imagine (or remember!) how your child may be feeling, facing, as they are, a potential mine field of fears, uncertainties, peer pressures and social anxieties, to say nothing of their apprehensions about the coming academic demands.

So what can a parent do?

First, take care not to let your fervent wishes for your child's success and happiness become yet another source of stress; they may interpret your concerned questions as a lack of confidence in them -- which is the last thing any child wants to feel from their mom or dad.

Remind yourself that it is a time of transition and adjustment -- for everyone in the family -- and that as much predictability and regularity in their home lives as possible can help a child in making the leap from their previous year's experience to the demands of their current classes and evolving social lives.

And so being a little more available should they need to talk can be a real support to them, too -- especially if it does not feel like you are monitoring them as if you already suspect something's wrong.

Should they want to share aspects of their daily lives with you, endeavor to listen a little more carefully, as this may be a time when they begin to voice, even if only in bits and pieces, how they are feeling. They may not be seeking, at such moments, an answer or instant solution so much as they may simply need to vent their apprehensions. So try not to jump too quickly into "fixing" mode, when all they may be seeking is your reassuring attentiveness.

So finding a few more ways to take some deep breaths together along the way can help everyone to transition from a summer's often less structured time to the more restricted and demanding fall schedules family's face.

Bear in mind that, for your child, a new school year's a bit like starting a whole new job -- if not career -- every September. They must adjust to new conditions, classmates, teachers, deans, coaches, work projects and assignments. It will take most of their energy and inner resources to cope with all the new influences, personalities, activities and demands that will arrive, whether they feel ready for them or not.

So if they should be a little less forthcoming at home, a little more quiet at the end of their school day when you pick them up, or maybe even a little withdrawn, remember how much they have to deal with during their days... and evenings too, because for this generation, more than ever before, their social lives reach into their home lives via phones and the web, all of which keeps the pressure on them.

As we have written about more extensively in our parenting guides, unlike previous generations, the stumbles of youth today can be easily and instantly escalated digitally into community-wide spectacles, making even their most innocent misstep the topic of school-wide teasing or mockery.

So unlike in earlier years, when coming home at the end of a long day might have provided a break from their daily stresses, in today's wireless world, the incessant texting, tweeting and photo-sharing leaves little room for a kid to escape the feeling that the world is, to paraphrase the poet, too much with them. And that makes it difficult for them to relax, much less feel safe.

Not an easy row to hoe, being young these days.

So as we begin this new school year, a mom's and dad's patience, understanding and ready ear can truly help their child to better cope with the significant stresses of this time. And while we may routinely refer to it as "back to school," as if it were routine, we all know nothing could be further from the truth.

For much more on this, and all things parenting, please visit our new Parenting Guides: "Stop Yelling, Start Listening -- Understanding Your Middle School Child", and "How to Be the Loving, Wise Parent You Want to Be... Even with Your Teenager!", available now at our website, "", or on iPad, Kindle, Nook or in paperback. "Sage advice for frustrated parents" -- Kirkus Reviews