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Aug 23, 2019

Back-to-School Stress Management

by Jeffrey Borenstein, M.D. 

The last weeks of summer vacation are beginning to wind down, and as advertisers “back-to-school” campaigns are in full-effect, a sense of excitement, nervousness, and stress begins to arise in both parents and children alike.

As the whole family makes the transition from a care-free summer lifestyle into the more regimented and scheduled back-to-school mode, a variety of stressors reemerge to plague everyone in the family.

Here are a few tips to begin the back-to-school season with a smooth start:

Listen & Watch
Most adults can recognize when they are feeling anxious or stressed.  It is important as a parent to recognize the signs of stress in teens and children.  Common signals can include difficulty sleeping, headaches, stomach aches, and changes in behavior (irritability and temper tantrums). The first step in helping your child with school stress is to really listen to what’s going on with them. You can begin conversations causally over dinner, when shuttling them to and from afterschool activities or for younger children, when tucking them in at night.  If your child isn’t sharing their thoughts verbally, watch for non-verbal cues. Trust your instincts if your kid just doesn’t seem to be himself or herself. 

Handling Homework
If homework is new to your family dynamic take time to discuss the work with your children. Talk about what it is, when it is due and help them devise a plan of how to get the work done – You can set small tasks for each night. Learning to manage their workload efficiently will help them not only succeed in school but in the workforce. For older children, set a plan or schedule in place perhaps at the beginning of each week. 

Create Consistent Routines
Children and adults tend to thrive with a consistent schedule.  Before the school year begins, plan the weekly a.m. and p.m. routine and do your best to keep to it.  Of course situations will arise that will throw you off track, but do you best to restart the routine as soon as possible. When everyone is on the same page and knows what is expected it helps eliminate potential chaos and stress. Each weekend, spend some time gathering your thoughts and plans for the week ahead. Write down appointments (both yours and your kids’), extracurriculars, playdates, meetings, and even downtime. By writing in time for downtime, exercise, and other “self-care”-related activities, you’re more likely to stick to them. And when you’re not stressed out, you’re more likely to give your children the attention and love they need. Consistency and boundaries can help ease some worry and stress.

Set House Rules Around Screens
Nearly every teen, child, and even toddler often clutches in their hands a smart device, whether it be a smartphone, iPad or Kindle, consuming their attention by buzzing, beeping and blinking with notifications. The abundance of content making its way into our schools, homes, and workplaces in this day and age is reflected in all of our behaviors and attitudes.  Every parent needs to decide what works for their family, but every family should have house rules around screens. Perhaps set screen-free times of day like when the family has a meal together, or no electronics in bedrooms overnight. While there certainly is value in technology, it is essential to balance screen time against the importance of spending time with real people, in real places, doing real things.

Unscheduled Time
Extracurricular activities are fantastic for everyone. However it is just as important for each family member to take time to relax and have some unscheduled time. Proper downtime can help in alleviating stress and anxiety.  Take time to practice self-care and help your child do this as well.  Exercise, read a book, take a walk, draw, and for children – play. All of these activities help us unwind.

At the end of the day communication is key. A strong sense of family communication will improve the functionality of many households. Keeping everyone on the same page should help ease some of the stress that families experience around back-to-school season.


About the author: Jeffrey Borenstein, M.D., is President & CEO of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation. He is also a board-certified psychiatrist with more than two decades experience in healthcare and non-profit leadership, and spent 16 years as CEO and Medical Director of Holliswood Hospital. He is the host of “Healthy Minds,” the public television Emmy Award-nominated series that he developed to educate the public, reduce stigma and offer hope to those suffering with mental illness and their families. Produced in association with WNET, the program has been distributed nationally. Dr. Borenstein serves as Editor-in-Chief of Psychiatric News, the newspaper of the American Psychiatric Association. He graduated from Harvard University and received his medical degree from New York University School of Medicine


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