By Hugh C. McBride

For many parents, the words “back to school” may evoke sepia-tinged memories of reconnecting with old friends, meeting new teachers, and claiming a familiar spot in the lunchroom. But for too many of today’s youth, returning to the classroom also means descending into a stress-fueled depression that can lead to a series of self-destructive behaviors.

“Life for many young people is a painful tug of war filled with mixed messages and conflicting demands from parents, teachers, coaches, employers, friends and oneself,” University of Minnesota professor and youth development educator Joyce Walker, PhD, wrote in an article on the UM Extension website. “Growing up – negotiating a path between independence and reliance on others – is a tough business. It creates stress, and it can create serious depression for young people ill-equipped to cope, communicate and solve problems.”

As Dr. Lynn Bufka of the American Psychological Association noted in an article that was posted on the APA Help Center website, the transition from summer to school can be a particularly tough time for young people – a challenge that can be either eased or exacerbated by the attention parents pay to the problem.

“The end of summer and the beginning of a new school year can be a stressful time for parents and children,” Bufka said. “While trying to manage work and the household, parents can sometimes overlook their children’s feelings of nervousness or anxiety as school begins.”

Almost every student experiences some level of back-to-school nervousness, but for some, these worries fail to subside once the year gets underway. Left untreated, enduring anxiety can lead to a range of unhealthy outcomes, including depression, poor academic performance, and substance abuse.

The following five tips can help parents help their children make a stress-free return to school:

  1. Eliminate the unknowns – Fear of the unknown can be a significant source of stress. If your child is attending a new school, find out if you can visit ahead of time so he can at the very least get “the lay of the land” by seeing the building and walking through the hallways ahead of the school-day rush. Having the opportunity to meet teachers or other students (some sports and extracurricular activities have meetings and practices in the summer months) can also be a great way to ensure a smoother transition.
  2. Help your student stay organized – Neither you nor your child can control every back-to-school variable, but knowing that she’s as prepared as possible will help your child handle the “curveballs” that life throws at us all. If your child’s school sends out a materials list over the summer, make sure that you review it to be sure that she has everything she’s expected to bring with her on the first day of school.

    Also, set aside a quiet, well-lit, and clutter-free “study space” in your home where your child can do his homework, and store his school supplies. Getting your child in an organized mindset before school starts will eliminate one source of stress once the academic year is underway.

  3. Talk to your child – This, as any parent knows, may be much easier imagined than accomplished. While young students may bubble over with moment-by-moment recountings of their days, teens are likely to respond to “how was school?” with little more than a shrug or a grunt. Regardless, experts emphasize that letting your children know you are there and interested is essential.

    “Kids need to know that there’s a stable place for them to talk about all the stresses that they’ve had,” Dr. Linda Bearinger wrote in a May 20, 2003 article on the University of Minnesota’s Health Talk and You website. “Research shows that there are certain times of day – the drive to school, dinner time, or just before going to bed – when children tend to open up. Kids whose parents are consistently around at one or more of those times tend to function better. Kids who can’t count on those consistent connections don’t do as well.”

  4. Stay involved with the school – Participating in parent-teacher organizations, attending open houses, and scheduling private conferences with your child’s teachers are all excellent ways to ensure that you know what’s going on with your student while she’s at school.

    Though most districts are required to send progress reports to parents of students whose grades are substandard, these messages often arrive after the academic damage has been done. Initiating contact with teachers and school administrators will allow you to learn about small challenges before they become big problems.

    Also, many schools send out newsletters, and many teachers have established individual Web pages for their classes: Consider these to be “required reading” throughout your child’s school years. (Yes, you just got a homework assignment.)

  5. Get help when your child needs it – Teachers, guidance counselors, and other school personnel are trained to identify struggling students and get them the help they need. But with the vast numbers of students in most schools, some students are bound to slip between the cracks. You may not be an education professional, but you are an expert on one essential topic: your child.

    Alert the school when you see that your student is starting to slip, and follow up to ensure that the proper steps are being taken. When communicating with your child’s teachers and counselors, emphasize collaboration rather than confrontation. The vast majority of academic professionals has the students’ best interests at heart, and should value your constructive insights into your child’s education. If they don’t, find an administrator who does.

No one has a perfect experience in school, and no preparation can adequately address every challenge that a student or a family will face. But by playing an active role in your child’s education, emphasizing your support, and continuing to educate yourself, you can put both you and your child in the best possible position to beat school stress and achieve academic success.