Back-to-school season is all about shifting gears and launching into new routines.
That makes it the perfect time of year to hit the pause button: to stop and really think about what you can do to make this the best possible school year for your kids.
That means paying close attention to the unique challenges posted by each age-and-stage of parenting—from the first days of kindergarten through the middle-school years and beyond. Here's what you need to know....
Parent of an elementary-school aged student? Avoid extra-curricular overload!
It's easy to be caught up in the wave of enthusiasm that goes along with the start of a brand new school year. That can lead you to overshoot when it comes to committing to extra-curricular activities: to sign your child up for far more activities than your child (or you!) can reasonably manage.
A practical way to avoid falling into this all-too-common trap is to ask yourself a couple of key questions before you sign your child up for any extracurricular activity:
“How important is this activity to my child?”
“How important is it for my child to sign up for this activity right now (as opposed to six months or a year from now)?”
“What else could my child and my family do with this particular block of free time?”
Pausing long enough to ask yourself these kinds of questions will help to ensure that you end up with a schedule that feels sane and manageable as opposed to one that feels impossibly busy; that you’re realistic about what you and your child can reasonably commit to right now. (When my four kids were younger, we had a limit of one activity per week per child. My husband and I recognized our limits. We knew we couldn’t handle anything more!)
And here's something else to think about when you're weighing the pros and cons of various activities. The growing body of research about the mental health benefits of leisure-time activities is teaching us that certain types of activities are more likely to deliver a mental vacation from day-to-worries and concerns. Activities that (1) require considerable focus and concentration and (2) that are challenging (but not too challenging!) help us to de-stress in ways that more passive activities (like zoning out in front of a video) do not.
Of course, it’s possible to get too much of a good thing (that "too much" being a schedule that's jam-packed with every conceivable activity). Kids also need plenty of downtime, too. Time to allow their minds to wander. Time to create their own fun. Time to just be kids....
Parent of a preteen? Tap into support from other parents!
The preteen (or middle-school) years tend to be rough ones for parents and kids alike. Academic and peer pressures ramp up for kids at the very same time that parents are grappling with a smorgasbord of work and family pressures. (It’s a time when marital satisfaction, for example, tends to bottom out.) So what’s the solution? Getting by with a little help from your (parent) friends. Or at least that’s the word from a group of researchers from Arizona State University. Parent support groups aren’t just for brand new parents, they insist. Parents of preteens need them, too. (Can’t find one? Start your own!)
Parent of a teenager? Help your teen to find a sense of purpose.
Teenagers can start to lose interest in school and to struggle in other ways if learning starts to feel disconnected with anything even remotely resembling “real life” (either the life they’re leading right now or the life they hope to be leading after graduation — or both). So have conversations about what your teenager wants for herself. And help her to start mapping out a path that will take her there. But don’t just focus on narrow, career-oriented goals or goals that are entirely rooted in herself. Help her to tap into her broader sense of purpose. Teens who are encouraged to think about ways that they can contribute to the world experience greater life fulfillment than other teens.
One practical way to do this is to help your child to find a mentor—someone who can help her to connect the dots between where she is right now and where she hopes to be. It’s a strategy that’s worked well for Kim Plumley, a Lanzville, British Columbia, mother of two. When I spoke with her recently for my CBC Radio weekend parenting column, she told me how much her 13-year-old daughter Ella has benefitted from being mentored by a local artist: how the experience has both validated and encouraged Ella’s own passion for the arts. Kim encourages everyone she knows to look for opportunities to mentor and encourage young people, noting that the time commitment can be minimal while the benefits can be far-reaching: “Be a mentor in ten minutes. Be a mentor for two hours. It doesn’t matter. If you can do it, do it!”
Parent of a college or university student? Continue to offer support and encouragement.
Some people might assume that a parent’s work is done the moment his or her child heads out the door to college or university when actually quite the opposite is true. Parents have an important role to play in offering support and encouragement from across the miles.
The transition from high school to college or university can be a tough one. Not only do first-year college and university students have to get used to living on their own: they are often shocked to discover that their college and university grades aren’t quite what they were back in their high school days. They may feel stressed and overwhelmed—and they may worry that they don’t have what it takes to succeed at college or university. This is where a caring parent has the opportunity to make a real difference—by offering support and expressing confidence in the student’s ability to weather these common first-year storms.
According to some recent research conducted at UBC, college and university-aged students need to hear that (1) everyone finds this transition tough; (2) most students get through it (and we have confidence that you will, too); (3) it’s important to treat yourself with self-compassion and to turn to others for support, if you’re struggling. The takeaway message you want to give to your college- or university-aged kid is simple, yet powerful: “Sure, you may be practically all grown up, but you don’t have to handle this on your own. Reaching out for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. We love you and we’ll always have your back. Because family is forever.”
Managing back-to-school stress (CBC Radio)
A shockingly simple guide to back-to-school stress (blog post)
Ann and Kim's amazing back-to-school adventure (blog post with audio)