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Suddenly September: Rising to the Back-to-School Challenge

Children of all ages struggle with back-to-school anxiety.

Key points

  • September can be a mixed bag of challenging times and return to routines.
  • College children on their own for the first time should be allowed to set the terms of how much support they require.
  • Empty nesters grapple with difficult emotions as they look forward to more time to pursue their own interests and passions.

Here we are again: Back to school, more structured days, and routines. September is a mixed bag of challenges and emotions. For young people leaving their homes for the first time to continue their education, for parents dealing with empty nest syndrome, and for school-age children coping with entering a new school or dealing with anxiety upon returning to school, there are a lot of challenges that come with the sudden arrival of September. Let’s look at what’s stressing us, and how to cope with the changes we are facing today.

For many of us, the end of summer means getting back to business, a return to more structured routines, and—especially for parents and children—a sometimes overwhelming set of challenges and adjustments to new situations that rattle us more than we have anticipated. We can feel overwhelmed, distraught, alone, and not up to facing so much change all at once.

Back-to-School for Children and Teens

For young children—especially those starting school for the first time, kids who are going to a new school due to a family move, and children with a learning difference—the first day of school can be overwhelming. Young children may struggle with separation anxiety. Your child, at any age, even if they are not normally anxious, can struggle with back-to-school anxiety. They may worry about feeling disliked, standing out for wearing the wrong clothes, and being unable to perform academically.

Teens entering middle school and high school also experience back-to-school anxiety. Your middle school student may feel anxious about new settings, dealing with heavier workloads, and the practical aspects of a larger school, along with the increasing social pressures of becoming a teen. Your high schooler, along with mounting pressures on academic performance and increasing expectations, may be experiencing social anxiety—an aftereffect of the global pandemic.

Model Calm, Confidence, and Self-Esteem

When it comes to helping our children navigate and cope with change, it is up to us, as parents, to model calmness, self-confidence, and self-esteem. We should provide our children with the basics—lunches, comfortable clothing, and the tools they need for school—and assure them that they are capable of thriving. Begin to instill in them the belief in themselves and their ability to cope with life’s challenges. Explain that if they are worried about their ability to handle schoolwork, their worries are completely normal, and you are there to help and support them, as are the teachers and staff at their school.

Listen to their concerns and encourage them to examine their fears. How likely is it that their teachers and family will abandon them if they are struggling and not help them with their schoolwork? How likely is it that everyone will dislike them? By teaching them to challenge their fears, you are empowering them with the ability to think critically and logically about the likelihood of their imagined worst-case scenarios actually happening—a valuable lesson that will last a lifetime!

When It’s Time for Your Child to Leave the Nest

At some point in time, it will be time for your child to head off: Whether it’s to school in a far-away city, or a job far from home, this transition is inevitable. At this phase of both your child’s life and yours, there may be a lot to worry about, process, and navigate. By now, you’ve already put a great deal of effort into helping your child get situated and settled into their new surroundings. They will be busy, nervous, and excited as they begin a new, independent chapter of their life.

It’s important that you allow your child to begin this exciting new phase of their life on their terms. Stay in touch, but not too much. Let them know that they can call you whenever they want, but resist any urge to call them too much. Set up regular call times and make concrete plans for holidays and breaks. This gives everyone something to look forward to and helps create healthy boundaries that keep everyone grounded and self-sufficient. If they need extra support, they will ask. Allow them to set the terms around how much or little support they need.

A Few Words for the Empty Nesters

If you’re dealing with a suddenly child-free house, welcome to empty-nest syndrome, that mixed bag of sadness, joy, anxiety, and excitement about this new phase of life.

While your primary role for many years has been that of a parent—and you still are a parent—you are no longer on duty around the clock. You have more time; it’s time to think about what gives your life meaning and purpose and how you wish to spend your time.

It’s time to discover what brings you fulfillment and joy at this phase in your life. Invest in a new hobby. Reconnect with your partner. Travel, exercise, take a cooking class, and plan short weekend trips together. Reconnect in fun ways. Prioritize your interests. This may be harder than it sounds! Shifting your priorities to yourself and your needs is an important change. Think about the things you used to enjoy and weren’t able to do while focusing on being a full-time parent.

Empty-nest syndrome, though full of new possibilities, comes with tough emotions, like sadness and anxiety. What you are feeling is very common and you shouldn’t feel guilty, embarrassed, or weak if you are struggling. There are plenty of support groups for parents navigating the transition of their children leaving home. If joining a group is not your style, and you find yourself struggling, consider seeking the help of a therapist, one-on-one or with your partner. It is important to be kind to yourself if you are struggling.

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