Back to School: Shifting the Parental Focus
by Alissa Klugh, MS, LPC
Do you have children who are going back to school? If so, you know how difficult it can be to adjust and readjust your family's lives to the new schedule, new people, and new setting(s). But what is the best way to do all of this? Are there really fool-proof ways to avoid the difficult situations that arise? Is there some special technique out there that you have been missing all of these years, as a parent? The answer to that is, "No," but there are some tips, which you may find helpful during this stressful time of year.
1. Sticking to a Routine- Sure, being on a schedule is simple, right? Not exactly. You're already busy enough, but to find time to make a schedule on top of trying to keep one - Who are we kidding? Think of the big picture. You already know all of the tasks that need done in a day with your children: time of school, extracurricular activities, homework, family time, etc., so work with your family on creating a schedule for all of this. Having your family work together on a schedule that works for everyone can be helpful. Or, you make the schedule, and get everyone's feedback. Think Democracy. If your child does not want to take a Karate class, but loves to sing, don't push the Karate that would have you at the classes three times per week. Look for singing lessons. If your work schedule does not allow for your child to attend a gymnastics class - talk with your child about your inability to get them there, and work with them on finding another location for classes. As far as sticking to a routine, demonstrating to your children that you are committed to it is going to teach your child about the importance of accountability. So, keep with the routine. Having a written schedule for your child to see and abide by is huge. It teaches them how to keep a schedule and the importance of doing what is expected. Add bath time and family time to your routine, as well. If you want your family to sit down at the table and have dinner together, make that a priority and stick with it. Your family will follow suit.
2. Being Present- Who are we kidding, of course we have to be present to keep a routine, right? But being present is far beyond being physically available to take your children to the park. What is meant by "being present" is being cognizant, aware, and active in what is going on, in the moment. Set up a time to help your child with his/her homework. Ask about his/her school day. Share your daily experiences (within reason). If you are at that park with your children, don't sit on the bench and read emails on your phone - go playon the playground with your children. Children remember moments - those times that your attention and engagement have left an impression on their lives. Your emails and texts can wait. Set boundaries for yourself and make time to be mindfully active in your family's life.
3. Being Mindful - When was the last time you were truly aware of what was happening around you? What was your child wearing when he/she left for school this morning? What was the last thing that he/she said to you? What was the last thing you said to him/her? Chances are, you don't have answers to most of these questions. Let's be honest, most of those questions do not "matter," per se, but missing small moments does. Being mindful goes with #2, being present. If you are not active in what is happening around you, you are not being mindful of what is transpiring, before your eyes. Do one thing at a time, enjoy each bite when you eat, and observe your children and verbally respond to their actions. If you think something your child just did was insightful and creative, then TELL THEM about it, and why it was meaningful. Take small snapshots of how you are feeling throughout an experience; state to yourself "I am feeling joy right now." And, if someone is around you - TELL THEM. We cannot assume that others are sharing the same emotional, physical, or social experience as us, and the best way to truly understand the situation, is to share it.
4. Recognition of Feelings - Of course the therapist is going to make mention of feelings! Would we truly be therapists, if we did not? All joking aside, this coincides with the previous tip of being mindful. Has your child ever had an emotional response that you just don't know how to handle? Well, here are a few thoughts on that: Allow your child(ren) to have his/her feelings so that they know that they are capable of managing them. If you constantly try to rescue your child, he/she may not learn to self-soothe. Self-sufficiency in emotional management is key in becoming well-adjusted in our society. Let's face it, your child's teacher or boss or supervisor is not going to come running to make sure your child is emotionally soothed when he/she has a deadline in place. Next, don't try to rescue, fix, or talk your child out of his/her feelings. Your child is learning to experience and express emotion; having their parent(s) tell them that they are not supposed to feel a certain way, when they actually do feel that way, will only cause confusion and potentially shame for that emotional experience. Don't forget: Validate their feelings. When your child is being emotional (in any way), you can say: "I can see you are feeling very ____ right now," to demonstrate your ability to understand their emotions and connect, but this also gives them the opportunity to correct your perception of the situation, or perhaps they will then verbalize what it is that is making them feel that way. You can always provide your child options with ways to manage their strong emotions, but don't forget, it is not up to you to resolve them. You are giving your child the space he/she needs to become a strong emotional being - emotional intelligence can go a long way and last a lifetime.
5. Monitoring "Screen Time"- Ah, yes, screen time. The time spent on electronic devices (tv, tablet, cell phone, video games, computers, etc.). These devices are a blessing and a curse, all at once. They can grant us a few minutes of silence while our children are in the car, but they can also turn our children into addicted creatures who seek screen time and the instant gratification that can come with technology. Think of it this way: our society is briskly moving in the direction of having technology control most of what we do, why not try to put some boundaries on how much time our children spend in front of these devices? Remember that routine that was mentioned in #1? Well, this is where it comes into play. Don't restrict your child from screen time, indefinitely, (unless that is what your family practices - then more power to ya!) but put a time in their schedule that allows some screen time, based off of how old your child is, or if he/she has completed some of the chores on his/her to do list, then allot some time for it. No matter what you choose, set limits for the amount of time your child is allowed to use it. We know that this might mean that the screen is no longer a "babysitter" for your child, and that can be tough, but, honestly, the best thing you can do for your child is to spend time with him/her. Make that time meaningful (see above). Our time on devices, connected to social media, etc., has been linked to mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression and other social problems, such as poor communication habits. Although these are merely correlations, there has been enough evidence for us, as adults, to make attempts to help out our children by leading them down a path of understanding the importance of in-person interaction. Helping them feel connected and wanted is simple and can leave a huge impact.
6. Staying Physically Active - Okay, who has time for the gym?!? Wait, you mean, you have too much other stuff going on that you cannot be physically active? This is no surprise. Our busy lives lead us down a sedentary path - maybe not because we want to choose this for ourselves, or our family, but because our lives are so hectic that adding something else to the calendar makes us cringe. There are some small tweaks that you can do to your everyday routines that can help keep you, your partner, and/or your children active. First, take the steps. I know that you carry a big purse (for all your parenting goodies) or a big satchel, but, take.the.stairs. This will increase your heart rate and help you rack up extra steps on that watch you wear (and despise every time you see that you did not meet your foot-to-pavement quota for the day). When you take your child to soccer, don't just sit on the bleachers. Walk around the playing field. Remember when I mentioned being present, before? Well, here it is, again – play with your children on the playground. Do a quick online search for "activities that build" or "ice breaker activities" to find simple ways to add physical activity into your life. And, Bonus: these activities help build teamwork skills, communication, self-esteem, and physical/emotional awareness. Do it. Your family and your body will thank you later.
7. Eating Healthy- I know, I know, it's bad enough that I'm suggesting that you reduce your child's screen time and am having you take the steps, as opposed to the elevator - don't take away the candy bars, too! In all honesty, it's not a bad idea to treat yourself, but it's that pesky word "moderation" that I want to remind you of - remember that food pyramid that we used to use, when we were children? Well, it has changed to some other type of geometrical figure these days, but the basis is still the same: Try to fill your plate with color (veggies and fruit), and eat less of the bland colors (rice, bread, fats, etc.). Hydrate. Drink the water, skip the caffeine, soda, other drinks. Serve these types of food at dinner and don't keep giving in to feeding your children those chicken tenders and fries that are so easy to cook (Remember: moderation). Again, your body will thank you for this, and bonus: chances are, you will be healthier, which means you'll get to be a parent to your children longer.
8. Completing Homework- So, maybe you have a child who loves school and, subsequently, completing their homework. If this is the case, I am impressed and encourage you to continue to support these positive behaviors and habits. On the other hand, if you dread completion of homework with your child, you are not alone. Here are a few tips for homework: First, set a time each day for your child to complete their work, when you are available to help (if needed). Let your child attempt the work, before you step in and lead. Next, don't permit other reward activities before your child works on his/her homework. Use those activities as reinforcement for doing well on the homework (even if he/she had a hard time understanding the concepts). Mind your emotions. Teaching your child a concept that they are having a hard time picking up can be a challenge. If this is the case, take a quick break and return to the task after cooling down. This may also be a technique your child could use. Give feedback. When your child is doing well, tell them. Remind them that you are grateful for their creativity or are aware of how hard he/she is working. If you are concerned with how he/she is responding to you, tell them. Explain various ways that they can manage themselves during this time, and suggest small breaks. The best support a child can receive is from a parent who is attempting to understand their struggles and providing them with guidance on how to manage them. In addition to these tips, if your child is struggling with a subject and you are unable to assist (because, let's face it, the way that they are being taught how to do their Mathematics these days looks a LOT different than when you were a child), then ask for extra help from the teacher. See if they have any tips that could help you, as the parent, guide and coach your child through their home lessons. If need be, try to set up your child with a tutor or student mentor. Most schools have this available to their students, and if not, there are typically student centers in the area that may be able to assist. Ask around and search the internet for options. You can do it, and so can your child.
Hopefully, you were able to find some ideas that could work for you and your family in this passage. Remember, these tips and tricks are suggestions that may help you in management of the back-to-school mayhem. There are many other ideas and options available, and you are free to choose what does and does not work for you. Best wishes in this school year's endeavors!
Alissa Klugh is a clinician who has worked with children and their families for over 12 years. Alissa brings a lighthearted perspective, mixed with her experience, to deliver a realistic approach that she works hard to demonstrate to the families with whom she has worked.