This time of year is a roller-coaster of excitement and anxiety for families. A new school year brings new opportunities, more structure, and so much learning and growth; and often, new stressors, social and academic challenges, and growing pains. As parents, it can be deeply rewarding to watch our kids launch and experience successes and new connections; it can also be intensely hard to stand on the sidelines when they inevitably struggle.
For all parents, and especially those whose children or teens have social, emotional, or learning difficulties, it is important to go into the school year with thoughtful intentions about how you’ll navigate the ups and downs. Below, I’ll give you some ideas to get your brainstorming started as far as strategies, supports, and self-care as you enter the new school year!
Managing the Mental Load as Parents:
Organization is key. If this area is a struggle for you, sit with your partner, a friend, your child, or a coach who can help you figure out good systems for yourself, your child, and your household! Strategies that help many families include:
- Family calendar: a shared googlecalendar, and I am still a big fan of a large wall calendar in a high-traffic area like the kitchen
- Delegate responsibilities: whether it is a verbal agreement, a chore chart, or a contract, have a system and make sure it involves your kids. Age-appropriate chores help them boost their confidence, and reduces the stress load for you as the parent. The new school year is a perfect time to revisit this!
- Set up a defined work space for your kids: the space itself depends on your child’s needs and preferences – for instance, having a clock/timer, a box of fidgets, etc. If you help set up a space like this from the start, it can reduce future stress surrounding homework time.
- LET GO 🙂 This is a hard one for me, but it is important to consider what parts of your mental load are not necessary to carry – whether that means outsourcing tasks, or just lowering expectations/attachment to outcomes if the dishes are still in the sink at the end of a long day.
Navigating Challenges as a Team:
Open communication is key, and trust is essential to open communication. You are your kids #1 support, which means you’ll want them to share openly their ups and downs. For them to trust you with vulnerable information about their embarrassing moments, failures, and struggles, they need to feel a secure connection with you. We build that connection by:
- Nonjudgmental acceptance: parents get stuck on this one with me all the time. Primarily, the concern is that if we don’t criticize a bad decision or behavior, we are somehow communicating that it’s acceptable. Trust in your child that they know it’s bad already; they’re sharing the information for support, so join with them. Don’t condone the bad behavior, join with them in acknowledging what’s happened and moving forward.
- Show curiosity: Rather than assuming how they might feel or think about something, and rather than sharing your feelings or opinions, just ask: “How did it feel getting that grade on your test?” (that goes for a good or bad grade!), “what was that like for you when ____ happened?:, “what can I do to support you?”, “what can you do differently?”, or even “that was great, how did you know how to do that?”
- Stay calm when they are escalating: When you show your child that you can handle your feelings, it builds trust that you can handle whatever they need to share with you. It also helps them manage their own feelings – like seeing a calm flight attendant during turbulence, your calm is a visual cue that things are truly okay.
- Have compassion: That goes for yourself and for them. The challenges we face as parents now – dealing with smartphones and tech use, news about school shootings, etc. – are incredibly stressful. And, the challenges that our kids face – learning self-control and navigating their emotions and relationships in the era of smartphones – are incredibly stressful too. It’s okay to say to them sometimes, “You know what? This is really hard to figure out, for both of us.” And don’t forget the important followup: “We can do hard things.” We can compassionately acknowledge our struggles AND use it as a point of connection rather than conflict.
Remember your own Self-Care!
Prioritize your well-being. I work with a lot of parents, particularly moms, who come to me because they hit a point of burnout. Sometimes we don’t take care of problems until they’re at a crisis point, and I very much relate to that as someone who likes to procrastinate! But waiting for a hurricane to fix a leak in the roof, or waiting until your car runs out of gas on the highway somewhere because you didn’t stop for a fill-up, clearly makes things vastly more difficult. Take care of yourself regularly, so that you have energy for the challenges ahead. It also sets a good example for your kids to follow!
- Mindfulness exercises are essential, not optional: Think of it like brushing your teeth, but for your brain! You don’t need to start meditating an hour a day – you just need to practice a couple minutes at a time of tuning in to your thoughts and your self-awareness.
- Prioritize rest: Rest means adequate sleep, and taking adequate breaks – from work, from stimulation, from anything that is adding to stress – so that you can recharge. Even a small hand weight will become unbearable if you do enough repeated lifting; recognize that whatever stress you carry, you have to set it down sometimes. Take a mental health day, hire a babysitter and take a date night, have “quiet time” after kids get home from school for 20 minutes with no screens when everyone reads, draws, does yoga or meditates.
- Move your body: Stress builds up physically and turns into all sorts of other ailments – most often I see headaches, neck/back pain, and GI issues. Don’t sit with your stress all day – be sure to stretch, walk, and do some cardio. It will give you more energy, better sleep, and help you think and problem-solve more clearly. Move with your kids to help them too! Take family walks after dinner, or do activities like hiking or biking on the weekends.
This time of year can be truly crazy, but staying organized, staying connected with your kids, and staying on top of your own self-care can help set you up for success as parents. Remind yourself of this list when you hit challenges with your child; there will definitely be ups and downs through the school year, and that is to be expected. The goal is to be ready for those moments to happen, and allow them to strengthen the relationship and build your child’s resilience.