Parents Get School Stress, Too—Here’s How to Handle It

Why parents often get overwhelmed and seven easy things they can do to calm the jitters.

Medically reviewed in November 2021

After a relaxing summer, the first day of a new school year can bring a mixture of giddy excitement—new teachers! new friends! new notebooks ready to be filled with knowledge!—and overwhelming anxiety. And we’re not just talking about the students.

Parents can feel pressure from multiple directions, explains Christina Lynn, MD, medical director of the Behavior Health Unit at Grand Strand Medical Center in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

“If you have young children, you may worry about whether they’re ready for school, if they’re enrolled in the right program, if they’ll be able to make friends—even if you’ll fit in with the other parents,” says Dr. Lynn, who’s also the parent of a preschooler and a teen. If you’re the parent of older children, those worries can expand to everything from whether they’re prepared for standardized tests to whether they’re picking up the wrong habits.

Paying for supplies can add another layer of stress. The cost of backpacks, stationery, gym uniforms, field trips, and other school fees can run upwards of $600 per year for elementary students and more than $1,300 for high school students, according to one analysis published in 2018. Parents of special-needs children often face additional emotional challenges.

“There is a lot to do in the first few weeks of school, and a lot of that starts during the summer,” says Lynn. “I don’t know when any parent gets to relax!” The best way to dial down stress, she advises, is to tackle each problem as it comes up with practical solutions.

Here are seven ways to deal with some of the most common back-to-school stressors:

Start buying supplies as early as possible
Waiting until the day before school, when every family in town is swarming the school-supply aisle at Target, can be enough to drive anyone crazy. Start shopping for clothing, shoes, and basic supplies like notebooks and backpacks during the summer, suggests Lynn, chipping away at your list a little at a time.

“If you have more than one child, try to take each one on a personal shopping day if you can,” she recommends. “Not only is it less chaotic, but you can have some alone time with that child to address any concerns they have for school and how to help.”

Do a dry run of the morning rush
Let’s face it, the most stressful moment of the school day for most families is getting everyone up and out the door before the bus arrives or the first bell rings. “My family starts getting back into our routine two weeks before school starts,” says Lynn. That means adjusting bedtimes and waking the kids a little earlier each day so getting up on the first day of school won’t come as such a shock to the system.

Also, make sure you have lunch bags and boxes of snacks ready to go, and discuss what foods your kids are craving. Tastes change, so you don’t want to find out that first morning of school that your daughter now hates the hummus-and-apple wraps she wanted every day last year.

New school? Set your child up with a friendly face
Whether you’ve moved to a new town, your child has switched from public to private or vice-versa, or your tween is moving up to middle school, starting the year in a new building with new kids can be an exciting but scary adventure for kids and parents.

“If you know anyone in town with a child who already goes to that school, see if you can have the kids meet up over the summer,” suggests Lynn. “Even if they don’t become the best of friends, it can be very comforting to see a familiar face in the hallways.”

Lynn also suggests contacting the school to see if they have a buddy system or “ambassadors” to show the new kids around on the first few days. And be sure to attend any school tours or orientations. Simply knowing where the bathroom and cafeteria are located can relieve a lot of anxiety on that first day. Knowing where to find your child’s teachers and guidance counselors, should you ever need to visit school, will help you, too.

Tap into a support group
If you’re worried about the strict new teacher, the social dynamics of the middle school girls, or the pressures on seniors to get into the top colleges, you can be sure that other parents are feeling the same way. Finding a group of sympathetic friends to talk to—whether through a school volunteer group, such as the parent-teacher association, your religious community, or a book club—can help you see things more clearly, brainstorm solutions, and find emotional support.

Line up all your appointments in advance
Between medical forms, permission slips, emergency contact forms, and individualized education programs (IEPs) and 504 plans for students with special needs, the first days of school can involve an avalanche of paperwork. Lynn suggests making a list of every form you will need to complete and scheduling appointments with the pediatrician, eye doctor, therapist, and any relevant school administrators well before school starts.

Be in touch with the team
Rather than waiting until any potential problems arise, send a friendly introduction to your child’s teacher at the beginning of the school year, says Lynn. “I always send an email to the teacher saying, ‘I’m here if you need to get in touch, please let me know if there are any issues.’”

If there is an open house or “back to school” night, say a quick hello to the guidance counselor or the parent coordinator, as well. Just knowing you have someone at the school you can contact if a problem arises can help you sleep better.

Talk to someone if you feel overwhelmed
Lynn assures moms and dads that it is completely normal to feel stressed during times of transition. “But if those worries start to be all that you can think about, if you’re obsessing or losing sleep, or even considering pulling your child out of activities because of your concerns, then you should talk to a mental health professional who can help you with your anxieties,” she says.

Talking to a therapist is one of the best things you can do for yourself. If you’re happier or more relaxed, your child may also benefit.

“Children read you much better than you think, so you can’t hide your worries from them,” Lynn says. “What you can do is show them how you can manage your stress. And when you are having trouble managing stress, the best thing you can do is show them how you are going to talk to someone to help you.”

That way, if your kids are overwhelmed—either now or when they have children of their own—they will have a positive role model for how to get help.

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