Parenting Blog

The official blog for Ann Douglas, parenting book author and weekend parenting columnist for CBC Radio. Ann is the creator of The Mother of All Books series and the author of Parenting Through the Storm. Her most recent book, Happy Parents, Happy Kids, was published by HarperCollins Canada in February 2019.

A Quick Guide to Taming Back-to-School Stress

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Back-to-school season can be an emotional rollercoaster ride for parents and kids alike.

On the one hand, there’s all the excitement and activity that tends to accompany the start of a new school year. (New binders! New running shoes! A new backpack!)

But, at the same time, there can be a feeling of sadness, as parents and kids are forced to acknowledge the fact that summer is really-and-truly winding down. (Goodbye, summer evening marshmallow roasts. Hello, early morning school bus rides….)

What follows are some tips on minimizing the stress of back-to-school season and savouring what’s left of summer — the focus of my most recent weekend parenting column for CBC Radio.

Take solace in the fact that you’re not the only parent who finds back-to-school season stressful

A lot of parents find it to be a challenging time of year — and for good reason. It’s a busy time of year and it’s an expensive time of year. Kids have a habit of growing, so September is often wardrobe replenishment season on top of school supply purchasing season. Add to that the fact that the refrigerator needs to be stocked with the fixings for lunches and snacks and the fact that there can be hefty sign-up fees associated with various extracurricular activities and you can see why many parents begin to feel like they’re running a back-to-school marathon—an endurance marathon that is largely about emptying their wallets.

Resist the temptation to set the bar impossibly high for yourself

At this time of year, there can be a lot of pressure to get things organized. Super-organized, in fact. It can be easy to set the bar impossibly high for yourself—to tell yourself things like, “This will be the year when we finally have our act parenting completely together.” “This will be the year when every single school permission form and library book are returned on time.” “This will be the year when the gym clothes magically hop inside the backpacks each and every gym day.” Yep, it’s the stuff of which back-to-school fantasies are made and it can be a considerable source of back-to-school stress.

Calm yourself; calm your child

Parents have the opportunity to set the emotional tone for the entire family during back-to-school season. If you’re stressed out, your child is likely to pick up on and respond to those feelings. So the best way to keep your child from spinning out of control is to manage your own stress level.

This is something I was talking with Jenny Raspberry about recently. She’s the mother of two school-aged children. And she says that parents actually make back-to-school season harder on themselves if they leave all the preparations to the very last minute. Her best advice? Pace yourself! “Try to do a little bit at a time: Okay, does everybody have a backpack? Great! Okay, we need to make sure that everybody has a lunch bag. Okay. Maybe a couple of days later, you’re making sure that everyone has their water bottle. The more the parents are rushed and stressed, the more the children will pick up on that and act out accordingly.”

And the more likely it is that there will be tears at the bus stop on the first morning of school….

Reach out to your parenting “village” for support

Look for opportunities to share some of the back-to-school workload and to “be the village” for one another’s kids. Maybe you could take turns walking your kids back and forth to school. Maybe you could team up to plan a back-to-school picnic or barbecue (a fun way to take care of dinner during that busy and exhausting first week back at school). You can probably think of countless other ways you could join forces with other families.

Accept the fact that there will be a few back-to-school road bumps

Switching from your family’s summer to school-year routine can be challenging for all concerned. Personally, I have found that things tend to hit rock bottom on the Friday of the first week back to school. At that point, the adrenaline and excitement associated with the start of a new school year has started to wear off and everyone’s starting to feel tired—really tired—and really grumpy, too.

The good news is that you have the opportunity to help dial down that stress, both by accepting that change can be hard and by treating both yourself and your kids with compassion as you ride the rollercoaster that is back to school. It’s hard for them and it’s hard for us, but we can get through this transition together.

Resist the temptation to jam-pack your family’s schedule with a whole bunch of fabulous-sounding extracurricular activities

At this time of year, they all sound fabulous. But it’s important to be realistic about how many extra-curricular activities you and your kids can reasonably handle at one time.

Instead of just telling yourself, “It’s okay. I’ll find a way to make this work,” stop to consider how happy or how exhausted you are likely to feel a month or two from now if you actually try to shoehorn all these different activities into your family’s schedule.

How will “November you” feel about the commitments that “September you” is busy making right now?

Savour what’s left of summer

Yes, another school year is starting, but that doesn’t mean that summer is about to pack up its bags and leave town. If past years are any indication, the good weather should be sticking around for at least a little while longer. But we definitely want to make the most of it, while it’s still here. That means taking full advantage of the evenings and weekends; and heading outdoors as often as you can. It means zeroing in on the things that you and your kids you love most about summer and then figuring out how to continue to enjoy those experiences even after the school year starts again. It doesn’t need to be expensive or complicated. It’s simply about having fun together and about making a conscious decision to carry “the best of summer” forward into the new school year.

Ann Douglas is the author of numerous books about parenting including, most recently, Happy Parents, Happy Kids. This fall, she is launching The Village (a six-month online community of support and discovery for parents).

Finding Your Way in an Empty (or Emptier) Nest

The transition to an empty nest can feel gut-wrenching and/or disorienting at first -- but you can find your way over time. 

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It's the little things that tend to do you in: the sight of a too-empty refrigerator; the fact that you're no longer tripping over a small mountain of running shoes each time you attempt to enter or exit the front door; and the silence that greets you if you happen to be brave enough to step foot in your child's now-empty room. 

The transition to an empty nest (or an emptier nest, as the case may be) can be a rough one, especially during the early days. Sure, you've known this day was coming from the moment you became a parent, but it can catch you off guard nonetheless. ("How did the past 18 years manage to fly by so quickly?" you ask yourself as you hug your child goodbye and exit his dorm room.)

It doesn't seem all that long ago that you were trying to wrap your head around the fact that you were about to become a parent -- and now this chapter in your life is coming to a close. Or so it seems....

But is it? Are you obsolete? Have you actually outlived your usefulness as a parent? Or could it be that you're about to enter an exciting new stage together? (Or at least once you're finally able to stop crying?!!!) Based on what I've learned over the past ten years while watching my own four kids exit the nest, I would have to say it's definitely the latter. This isn't the end. It's more like a beginning. There are great times ahead. But you have to allow yourself to feel what ever it is you're feeling before you can find your way to that happier place.

And here's something else you need to know: there’s no right or wrong way to feel as you weather this milestone transition in your life as a parent. Your feelings may surprise you. You may feel more devastated or more relieved than you had ever imagined yourself feeling. And that's okay!

It's also pretty common to experience a mix of emotions. According to developmental psychologist Jeffrey Arnott, 84 percent of new empty nesters report missing their kids; 90 percent say they’re happy their kids are more independent; and 60 percent report that they’re looking forward to having more time to spend with a partner or spouse. 

Looking for some strategies to help you manage that cocktail of emotions? Here are a few tips, based on what I've experienced firsthand and what I've learned from other parents. (Note: If you prefer to listen to the audio version of these tips, you can tune into my recent interview with CBC Radio's Metro Morning.)

Give yourself a chance to feel all the feelings

Resist the temptation to fast-forward through these emotions -- and know that the intensity of these emotions will start to ease over time. 

Talk to other parents who’ve weathered this transition and come out the other side

Look for people who will help to reassure you that what you’re experiencing isn’t actually an ending, but more like a beginning: the start of an exciting new chapter in your life and a brand new relationship with your child.

Offer that same kind of support to other parents

Reach out to other empty nesters you know who might be having an exceptionally tough time. And be sure to make a point of looking out for the dads as well as the moms. After all, it's not as if moms have a monopoly on experiencing that aching feeling of loneliness when they stumble into a child’s now-empty bedroom. Dads feel it, too. And we need to ensure that they know that it's okay to talk about it as well.

Set a new goal for yourself

Remember all those years when you longed for a bit of time to yourself? Now you've got that time. So set a goal for yourself. Sign up for a course, acquire a new hobby, train for your first 5K, or plan a weekend getaway to a place you’ve always wanted to go – perhaps with someone you haven’t had the chance to spend time with in a while. In other words, embrace the freedom that comes from having a bit more time to yourself and for all the other important relationships in your life. Not only will this help you feel better (or, at a minimum, a little less awful): you'll also be modelling healthy resilience for your kids. You'll be demonstrating your ability to embrace new opportunities as opposed to, say, moping around the house -- or turning your kids' empty bedrooms into shrines! 

Stay connected in a way that works for your child and for you

Look for opportunities to maintain your connection to your child -- and don’t feel that you need to apologize for doing so. At a time when parents are frequently (and often unfairly) lambasted for being “helicopter parents,” you might be hesitant to provide your child with the behind-the-scenes emotional support and connection that actually encourages first-year college and university students to thrive.

Of course, what you say (and how you say it) matters a lot. You want to be kind, supportive, and encouraging. You want to express full confidence in your child’s ability to cope with whatever curveballs happen to come her way. And, finally, you want to remind her that she can reach out to you for support at any time, because family is forever and your love is unconditional. 

All that said, it’s important to recognize that some students will welcome more day-to-day contact with their parents than others. Some will benefit from a steady stream of encouraging messages from back home -- while others may want to pull away a little at first as they dive into the carnival-like excitement of campus life. Let your child take the lead in determining the frequency and mode of communication (text messages versus phone calls or face-to-face visits), but don’t be afraid to reach out if he or she drops the communication ball. Odds are your child will welcome a semi-regular stream of “thinking of you” messages from back home. (According to a December 2015 study conducted by the BMO Wealth Institute, over half of Canadian parents reported having contact with their young adults every day or almost every day. And young adults welcome that contact, with just 23% complaining that their parents were overly involved in their lives.)

Ultimately, that contact is good for them—and it’s good for you, too. Research shows that life satisfaction increases for parents during the empty nest stage for those parents are in frequent contact with their young adult child. So don't feel pressured to pull away as you enter this new phase in your relationship with your child. Your child still needs you as much as ever. They just happen to need you differently, that's all.


Want to learn more about getting to that happier, healthier place? Subscribe to Ann's brand new newsletters: Ann-o-gramSelf-Care Buddy, and The Villager.

Want to get the scoop on Ann's forthcoming book -- Happy Parents, Happy Kids -- when it hits the bookstore shelves early next year? You can sign up for Ann's book announcement newsletter here.

Back-to-School Parenting: That White Space on Your Calendar? It's Called Breathing Room

That white space on your calendar? It's called breathing room -- and it's good for you and your kids.

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Back-to-school season also happens to be extra-curricular activity sign-up season: that time of year when it is tempting to sign your kids (and yourself!) up for every conceivable activity. Everything sounds so exciting and so much fun. And it is -- as long as it doesn't tip your family into complete overload mode. 

Last year at this time, I shared some strategies for resisting the temptation to fill each and every square of your family's calendar with all kinds of fabulous activities.

This year, I'm going to build on that earlier post by talking about the benefits of leaving a little white space on your calendar -- of allowing your child to experience a healthy amount of boredom.

The upside of boredom

In our culture, we tend to think of boredom as a bad thing -- as something to be avoided at all costs. But what if it isn't actually something to be feared and dreaded? What if it's actually more like a gift? 

As it turns out, there are at least three significant benefits to allowing our kids -- and ourselves -- to be bored, at least according to the growing body of research on the science of boredom. 

1. Boredom encourages creativity

This happens because being bored is such a deeply uncomfortable feeling for us humans. Our brains will do pretty much anything to avoid it. You've no doubt experienced this in your own life. Perhaps you were stuck in a meeting room, waiting for someone else to arrive: someone who was running really, really late. As the minutes kept ticking away, you grew increasingly restless, and, out of utter, sheer desperation, you looked for a way to entertain yourself. Suddenly your eyes hit upon a stash of office supplies. And, before you knew it, you were making a chain out of paper clips or a patchwork quilt out of sticky notes. Anything to relieve the boredom! 

It's not just you, by the way, who finds boredom incredibly uncomfortable. One group of people who were participating in a scientific study about boredom actually voluntarily subjected themselves to electric shocks as a means of relieving those very same feelings! It was either sit there and do nothing or give yourself an electric shock. They opted for the electric shock!

The challenge for most of us these days is to actually allow ourselves to sit with these feelings of boredom and to encourage our kids to do the same. If we reach for our cell phones as a way to relieve those feelings of boredom, we miss out on the opportunities to exercise the creative parts of our brain. Likewise, if we rush in too soon to solve the so-called "problem" of boredom for our kids, we rob them of these opportunities, too. 

This is something I was speaking with Christine Hennebury about recently for a recent CBC Radio parenting column. She's a creativity coach and mother of two and a firm believer in the benefits of boredom. Here's what she had to say: "Teaching our kids to be okay with the discomfort of being bored can help us to gain a little mental real estate for ourselves -- and I think it's good problem-solving practice for them. The more problems they solve on their own -- including the problem of being bored and the ability to get comfortable with that uncertainty of 'What do I do next?' -- the fewer problems that we will have to solve for them." 

So you get a break.

The kids get to work on their problem-solving skills.

It's pretty much the ultimate win-win!

2. Being bored can reconnect you with your sense of purpose.

When you're bored, your mind starts to wander in a good way that encourages broader and more expansive thinking. Suddenly, you're able to see the broader perspective, the so-called big picture, as opposed to narrowly fixating on the minutiae of daily living. You're able to connect the dots between past, present, and future, something that allows you to derive a greater sense of meaning and purpose from your life. You know who you are, where you've been, and where you're headed. Your life actually starts to feel like it makes sense!

3. Being bored can make you a kinder person.

This is one of the more fascinating findings I stumbled across while pouring through the research on boredom while writing my forthcoming book. Spending time in a state of boredom actually encourages altruism, empathy, and acts of kindness. Researchers think that this is the direct result of the very thing we were just talking about: the fact that being bored encourages us to engage in deeper and more expansive thinking -- the kind of deeper thinking that allows us to become the best and wisest version of ourselves. We're no longer living our lives on autopilot, in a state of perpetual distraction. Instead, we have the opportunity to reflect on what matters most to us in life, like our relationships with other people. And that, in turn, encourages us to come up with creative ways of nurturing those relationships. We're so much happier and healthier as a result.

Helping kids to get comfortable with being bored

So now that we've talked about the benefits of boredom, let's talk about what it takes to help kids to become comfortable with the feeling of being bored and to figure out how to solve the problem of boredom for themselves. 

As parents, we can help them to understand that boredom is actually a good thing, not something to be feared or avoided at all costs. They need to know that the restless feeling we experience when we're really, really bored is designed to spur us to action. It's like an error message from your brain telling your body, "Hey! We've got to do something differently here!" The challenge is to figure out what that "different" might be. Maybe it means switching from a boring task (like mindlessly surfing the Internet) to a more interesting task (like doing art or solving a puzzle). And sometimes it means finding a way to make a boring task less boring (perhaps listening to some music while you're unloading the dishwasher).

And, of course, this is a skill we can practice in our own lives as well -- because being a grownup can be pretty boring at times, too. Think about it. Folding laundry is never going to rank up there as one of life's top ten most thrilling experiences. Ditto for washing dishes or, if you're a parent, listening to a six year old rhyme off an endless stream of "knock, knock" jokes. 

When boredom becomes a problem

Of course, as with anything else in life, you can get too much of a good thing -- even when that "good thing" means being bored. Extreme amounts of boredom can trigger unhealthy or even risky behaviours. Not only is boredom associated with mindless eating: it's also linked to substance abuse, bad driving, risky sex, problem gambling, and even political extremism. And it has been linked to poor grades, increased dropout rates, and difficulty managing impulses. 

That last bit brings to mind the time when two of my boys decided to relieve their feelings of boredom by playing with the can of spray paint they found in the next door neighbour's garage. As they discovered, curiosity may be the cure for boredom, but it can also get you into a lot of trouble. Or, as boredom researcher Andreas Elipidorou likes to put it: "The interesting isn't always beneficial." (Fortunately, the neighbours were pretty understanding.)

So you definitely don't want your kids to be bored 24/7. Extra-curricular activities can be a godsend -- in moderation.

It's about finding that sweet spot between total boredom and total overload.

That's where the magic happens as a family. 
 

Want to learn more about getting to that happier, healthier place? Subscribe to Ann's brand new newsletters: Ann-o-gramSelf-Care Buddy, and The Villager.

Want to get the scoop on Ann's forthcoming book -- Happy Parents, Happy Kids -- when it hits the bookstore shelves early next year? You can sign up for Ann's book announcement newsletter here.

Back-to-School Parenting: How Self-Compassion Eases Back-to-School Anxiety for Parents + Kids

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The kids are getting ready to head back to school. It's an exciting time of year, but it can also be a stressful time of year for parents and kids alike. If you're looking for a way to ease the pressure and dial down the anxiety that you and your child may be feeling, you may want to tap into the far-reaching benefits of practicing self-compassion.

What is self-compassion?

Not quite sure what I'm talking about when I refer to self-compassion? Here's a quick crash course. 

Self-compassion is compassion directed toward the self. It's about being at least as kind to yourself as you are to other people, as opposed to being harsher, more critical, or less kind.

Self-compassion is deeply rooted in a feeling of connectedness to other people. It encourages you to recognize that everyone makes mistakes and that everyone goes through times of struggle. It's not just you. 

Self-compassion is action-oriented. It's about wanting good things to happen for yourself and being willing to take action to make those good things happen. For most of us, that means learning how to be comfortable with uncomfortable emotions, as opposed to feeling like we need to run away from those feelings. As psychotherapist Jennifer Brighton explained when I interviewed her for my recent CBC Radio parenting column on self-compassion, "The essence of being self-compassionate always comes down to, 'I am suffering and I'm willing to see that -- and now how do I get through this?'" So self-compassion is about really listening to yourself when you're having a bad day, just as you would really listen to a friend who was struggling. And then it's simply a matter of allowing that "conversation" with yourself to guide you in deciding what action you should take to make things better.  

How is self-compassion different from self-esteem?

Self-compassion is rooted in feelings of self-acceptance whereas self-esteem is much more dependent on achievement. You feel great about yourself when you're achieving all kinds of fabulous things  and terrible about yourself when you're not.

People whose self-worth is tied to self-esteem tend to crave a lot of external validation. They need other people to tell them that they're worthwhile human beings as opposed to finding those feelings of worthiness within themselves.

Self-esteem is also related to feelings of competition. You're constantly striving to be the best -- and you're not afraid to do so at the expense of other people, if that's the price you have to pay to get ahead. This can leave you feeling separate from other people (because you see those other people as potential competitors as opposed to potential friends) and it can even promote unkind or even bullying behaviours. 

So, as you can see, self-compassion and self-esteem are as different as night and day, both in terms of how they leave you feeling about yourself and how they encourage you to treat other people. 

How can kids benefit from learning about self-compassion?

Teaching kids about self-compassion can help to counter deep-rooted cultural messages that encourage perfectionism and fuel feelings of anxiety. This is important because there's growing evidence that perfectionism is on the rise. A recent study of over 41,000 Canadian, American, and British college students concluded that, "Recent generations of young people are more demanding of themselves, perceive that others are more demanding of them, and are more demanding of others." That's pretty much the recipe for great personal unhappiness, poor mental health, and poor relationships with others. 

As parents, we need to seize the opportunity to help our kids find a happier, healthier path through life -- a path that includes teaching kids about self-compassion.

Here's why.

First of all, self-compassion encourages emotional stability. Your child doesn't have to repeatedly demonstrate her worthiness by constantly chasing after achievement after achievement. She understands that she is lovable and worthy just by virtue of being herself. Teaching your child about self-compassion means giving your child the precious gift of self-acceptance.

Secondly, self-compassion encourages resilience. Your child is better able to bounce back from life's road bumps. Instead of beating himself up when he fails a math test, he is able to acknowledge what's happened and come up with strategies for dealing with the underlying problem (like maybe getting some extra help from his math teacher). And because he's able to make the shift into action mode, he's less likely to find himself stuck in a downward spiral of negative emotions -- emotions that might otherwise interfere with his efforts resolve the problem of that failed math test. 

Finally, self-compassion encourages learning and growth. Your child isn't afraid to take chances or to try new things because his feelings of self-worth aren't narrowly anchored in any single achievement. Who cares if he tries that new thing and falls flat on his face? He's still a 100% worthy and lovable human being and he knows it.

How can parents benefit from practicing self-compassion?

Self-compassion changes the entire landscape of parenting. It makes everything so much less stressful. 

For starters, it makes parenting easier. Parenting is hard enough without having a self-critical voice in your head constantly telling you that "you're doing it all wrong." Self-compassion helps to silence that voice.

Self-compassion also helps you to become a kinder and a more effective parent. You find it easier to acknowledge and accept your child's struggles and shortcomings, just as you've learned to accept your own. Instead of asking yourself to be perfect and insisting that your child be perfect, too, you recognize that you're both doing the best that you can with the skills and abilities that you have right now -- and that you can build on those skills and abilities over time. It's about learning and growing together. 

How to teach your kids (and yourself!) about self-compassion

The best way to teach kids about self-compassion is by modelling this skill for them. Our kids are always paying attention to what we do and what we say -- so let your child catch you being kind to yourself the next time you forget an appointment, misplace your car keys, or spill a cup of coffee on the couch. 

It's also helpful to talk about self-compassion as a family. When you're watching a movie together, highlight situations where characters are treating themselves with extreme kindness or extreme unkindness. Talk about what motivates these types of behaviour and what the real-life fallout can be of being perpetually mean to yourself.

If you have a child who is extremely self-critical, help your child to change the channel in her brain from self-criticism to self-compassion. The next time you catch her saying unkind things about herself, encourage her to think about what she would say to a friend who was dealing with the very same situation. Then encourage her to say those same kinds of things to herself. 

At first, practicing self-compassion may feel awkward and unnatural — and you might even find yourself getting a little discouraged. What you don’t want to do is to beat yourself up for not getting this self-compassion thing right — or at least not right away. It takes practice to master any new skill, and self-compassion is no exception. the first step is to simply pay attention to the voice in your head — to notice how often that voice is critical as opposed to kind. Then, when you catch yourself saying something harsh or judgmental to yourself, challenge those thoughts. Ask yourself questions like, “Is that really true? Am I actually the world’s worst klutz, just because I spilled a drink on the couch?” and “Would I say something that harsh and judgmental to a coworker or my best friend, if they were the one who spilled the drink on the couch?” (Hopefully, the answer is no!)

If you can remind yourself of the far-reaching benefits to both yourself and your child of mastering this skill together, you’ll be more motivated to keep trying to treat yourselves (and one another) with greater compassion.

You’ll want to do the hard but life-affirming work of journeying to that happier, healthier place as a family. 
 

Want to learn more about getting to that happier, healthier place? Subscribe to Ann's brand new newsletters: Ann-o-gram, Self-Care Buddy, and The Villager.

Want to get the scoop on Ann's forthcoming book -- Happy Parents, Happy Kids -- when it hits the bookstore shelves early next year? You can sign up for Ann's book announcement newsletter here.

Back-to-School Parenting: An Ages and Stage Guide

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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.”

Related reads

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)
 

Ann Douglas is the author of numerous books about parenting, including, most recently, Parenting Through the Storm. She is also the weekend parenting columnist for CBC Radio and a parenting speaker.