Sleeping in, beach days, backyard cricket, family games’ nights and the smell of sausages on the barbecue – the quintessential Kiwi summer. These long, hot days, coupled with freedom from routine, makes for parents who are more relaxed and kids who are more agreeable. If only we lived in a permanent state of summer holidays!

Regretfully, as January draws to a close, the reality of everyday life begins to dawn. For some children, the return to school is exciting, especially for those who enjoy the rhythm of routine, thrive on academic achievement or have a solid group of friends.

For others, the anticipation is not so positive. The transition back to school can spark anxiety, dread and overwhelm, which can be caused by a number of factors:

  • starting a new school
  • experiencing difficult social dynamics
  • feeling like school is not for them but too young to leave
  • dislike of a new teacher
  • changing circumstances at home – parents separating or a new sibling.

Watching children and adolescents struggle is particularly stressful for parents – we want to help but may be unsure how to. Plus, parents aren’t just supporting their children in a vacuum, we too are returning to complexity: juggling the work/life divide we try to balance, managing additional financial pressures, from stationery to new school uniforms, and perhaps trying to focus on personal goals for the year.

The pressure to navigate work and home can result in parents’ overlooking their children’s feelings of nervousness or anxiety as school begins and, while understandable, this is not so useful.

How can parents best help?

  1. Take notice.During the return to school, it’s important for parents to pay more attention to what’s going on for their child or teenager (e.g. noticing their emotional reactions, perhaps a difference in their thinking patterns or normal behaviour). Setting aside time each day to be fully present with children can help. This means no phones and senses engaged.
  2. Talk with your children.Being able to share and talk about what’s going on can help both the child and parent work through emotions, especially upsetting ones like fear. During these discussions, it’s helpful to stay curious without jumping to conclusions. Try asking open questions as if you’re a naïve enquirer and use a “strengths-based” perspective.

    • “Hey mate, you seem a bit on edge, I want to check if you are OK.”
    • “How are you feeling about going to school, is there anything you’re thinking lots about?”
    • “Is there anything that would help make this year of school the best year yet?”
    • “How can I support you to have the best start to the new year?”

  3. Demonstrate compassion, understanding and belief. In a way that is authentic to you, let your children know that you hear them, understand what they are experiencing and are there to support them. Normalise the fact that first-day jitters or end of summer blues are normal, and that other kids will be in the same boat. Also communicate to your child that you believe in them and know that they will be able to manage. Together, you can navigate what needs to be put in place to support them.
  4. Plan ahead. Children thrive on routine and rituals. Getting useful habits back in place a week beforehand, such as bedtime rituals, can help smooth the transition and ease the shock of early mornings. Organising stationery, locating lunchboxes and school bags, or planning the route to school are all ways to mentally prepare children.

    For children starting a new school, going for a visit so they know where the classroom is or locating their locker can also ease anxiety. Maybe ask the school to introduce you to other kids in class before term begins so you know a friendly face.

  5. Be gentle on yourself. As a parent, it is important you make sure you look after your own needs. Parents aren’t immune to their own end of summer blues or overwhelm at managing multiple facets of life. We need capacity to support our children well, which means self-care is important to not ignore.