Overwhelmed by back-to-school season? Experts say parents should 'choose their battles' when settling into a new routine.

·6 min read
When kids head back to school, routines and schedules change drastically. Experts say it's OK for parents to feel sad as they adjust to a new school year. (Photo: Getty Creative)
When kids head back to school, routines and schedules change drastically. Experts say it's OK for parents to feel sad as they adjust to a new school year. (Photo: Getty Creative)

Every August and September, social media feeds from across the country are filled with adorable first day of school photos. But for many parents, back-to-school season — and all of the preparations that come with it — is rife with anxiety.

Between endless forms to sign, transportation schedules to decipher, wardrobes and supplies to buy, summer reading lists to complete and meet-the-teacher nights, just the process of getting your kids ready for the new school year is enough to cause havoc before the first bell rings.

Then, there's getting the kids accustomed to early-morning wakeup calls and the insanity of getting everyone fed, dressed, prepped and out the door during those first few weeks. It's enough to make any parent feel like maybe back-to-school time isn't all social media makes it out to be.

Dr. Whitney Casares, a pediatrician, American Academy of Pediatrics spokesperson, author and host of the Modern Mommy Doc podcast, has two daughters of her own. She says feelings of overwhelm as the school year begins is normal.

"Even though parents can look forward to the kids going back to school because they get some of their personal time back, it can definitely be stressful," Casares tells Yahoo Life. "There's so much extra pressure on both parents and kids at the start of the school year."

In her clinical practice, Casares sees these stressors all the time, both with kids going back to school or starting a new school. She says parents often share their anxiety with her surrounding the end of summer vacation and the start of another school year.

And even if you are looking forward to shipping the kids back to school, there's that pervasive parental feeling — the ever-present guilt — about not wanting to spend every waking moment with your children. "Working moms especially feel this guilt about being relieved that the kids won't be around as much," says Casares. "The reality is that we can't do it all and we have to choose our battles. Putting our own needs first sometimes actually does help our kids and everyone around us."

Feeling the back-to-school stress? Practice self-compassion

Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer, researchers and psychologists, developed the "mindful self-compassion" method to create emotional resilience in practitioners. Simply put, turning toward difficult thoughts and feelings (like guilt, stress and impatience) with kindness and understanding for ourselves can soothe and comfort those feelings, helping us to move forward.

Casares recommends using these tools as parents getting ready for back-to-school season. "Notice when you're speaking negatively about yourself or feeling guilty that you're not a 'better parent' for your children," she says. "Validate that emotion by naming it — for example, 'I feel guilty that I'm sitting on my couch reading a book and enjoying myself while my kids are at school.'"

Casares says understanding we are all experiencing these emotions to some degree, that we are not alone in them, can bring about great comfort. Take time to reflect on the feeling and take action from the emotion you're feeling. "You have choices," says Cacares. "You could either interrupt your reading and go pick your kids up from school, or you could recognize that this quiet moment on the couch is really good for you."

Casares also suggests actions like taking five minutes to sit by yourself and close your eyes and breathe to calm down when you're feeling overwhelmed with all the paperwork and appointments required for your child to return to school and extracurriculars.

Decide what the non-negotiables are ... and just do those

Making a list of all the things that have to get done before the start of school is a good start in emptying your mind and making concrete plans. Once you've done that, Casares says to identify the non-negotiables and see how you can adjust them to make them less stressful.

"I have to buy jeans for my daughter, but do I have to buy the most expensive jeans?" she says. "I have to fill out these forms, but do I have to use the most perfect penmanship or can I have my child fill out as much as they can and I'll fill out and sign the rest?" Casares calls this "selective mediocrity" — completing a task as superficially as possible just to get it done and off the list, lessening your stress levels.

"Delegate, swap and barter tasks with your partner, your kids and anyone else involved in your kids' care," she says.

BreAnn Alvey, a mom of six from Rock Springs, Wyo., finds that instead of one big shopping trip, she prefers to buy clothes as needed. "It's easier on the budget and allows for appropriately-sized clothing for the season," she shares. "You never know when your kid is going to have a growth spurt."

Alvey also takes family photos each year, so they skip ordering school pictures and let the kids make their own clothing, makeup and hair choices for school picture day instead of micromanaging their look.

Casares also suggests keeping the house free of the reminders of your stress as much as possible. Keep clutter caused by paperwork to a minimum. Have all your child's supplies and clothing neatly put away before the start of school. "Anything we can do in our physical environments to make things easier in our minds, we should try to accomplish before the first day," she says.

Be precious with your time and put effort where it makes the most difference

One of the most important boundaries Casares discusses is around your child's "heartstrings" and how what means a great deal to them can affect your time. "My daughter loves when I volunteer at school, and truth be told, I cannot stand it," she says. Casares decided that instead of volunteering all the time and feeling resentful, she would volunteer once so that her daughter wouldn't feel left out, and that she'd do it in the morning so she could complete some work in the afternoon.

"I was both there for my daughter and avoided the resentment of the expectation of being available to volunteer at all times," she explains.

Casares emphasizes that if you're feeling stressed and anxious about the start of school, you're not alone. She developed her app, the Modern Mamas Club to offer support. "I know that this is the type of journey takes a lot of practice," she says. "There are leagues of [parents] ready to help you and just being willing and ready to accept that help is a major step in overcoming these difficult feelings."

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