Tackling Back-to-School Stress
Rebekah Evans, Ph.D., Jonesboro, Arkansas
Now that August is here, families start to think about—and worry about—getting the school year off to a good start. Both parents and children may experience anxiety around establishing school-year schedules, academic work, extra-curricular activities, and relationships. The best way to start a great school year is by taking time to make sure families are taking care of their mental health. The checklist below can help. Families (parents and children) can ask themselves:
In our family…
- Are we taking care of any medical needs? Medical needs should be addressed first and foremost in any family. Follow up with your health care provider to make a plan.
- Are our meals nutritious and tasty? Nutrition contributes to every aspect of health, and enjoying meals together as a family can build stronger relationships.
- Are we physically active? Research shows that physical activity can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, in addition to sustaining and bolstering physical health.
- Are we keeping healthy sleep routines?Good sleep is essential for our mood, our thinking, and our relationships.
- Are we misusing any substances? Misusing alcohol, nicotine and other substances can mask problems and keep us from developing more effective coping skills.
- Are we taking time for unstructured play?For both children and adults, unstructured play time is essential to helping us develop creativity, experience joy, and learn about ourselves.
- Are we involved in meaningful work or volunteer activities that benefit others? In addition to creating stronger communities, volunteering and care for others can improve our own mental health.
- Are we taking time to nurture our spirituality (if that is a part of our lives)? Prayer, meditation, religious services, and religious communities can provide strong emotional support for those who engage in them.
- Are we nurturing our relationships? Strong, positive social support buffers us against almost every kind of life stressor. Strong, positive parent-child relationships are one of the most powerful tools we know about for healing and growing.
Life is full of challenges, and even “routine” challenges, such as going back to school can strain any family. With the basics in place, we have more mental and emotional resources to face any challenge. At the same time, neglecting any basic area (such as lack of sleep or poor nutrition) can significantly hamper our ability to respond to stress. As you prepare your family for going back to school, take time to assess the basics. Now is a great time to establish (or re-establish) healthy routines in any of these areas.
Is your family struggling with more than one area that impacts physical and mental health? Then choose one focus, such as physical activity. Create a small routine that reinforces that area of health. For example, if your family tends to crash in front of screens every evening, commit to taking a five-minute walk together after supper. After a month, start walking ten minutes together. In a brief amount of time, you will have easily created a healthy habit for every family member. Have you fallen into a pattern of staying up too late over the summer? Slowly move bedtime earlier by ten minutes every few days until you reach your desired goal. And put your screens away an hour before bedtime.
Simple changes can lead to profound effects on our mood, our anxiety, and our relationships. At a time of year when everyone is focused on new routines, we can make small but powerful changes that lead to happier and healthier families.
Struggling to get started in any of these areas? Or if you are overwhelmed by stress around the new school year, talk to a psychologist. S/he can help you to create resources and find strength to meet the challenges you face.