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For many people, it is the first indication of summer winding down. Although arguably such a view point may reflect a "glass is half empty" perspective, August certainly does signal back-to-school time for children and parents alike. Some children may be getting bored or antsy at home and may be looking forward to seeing their friends again, while others may dread the upcoming academic year. Parents may also be experiencing mixed emotions, perhaps feeling a bit antsy themselves, but also lamenting their children's return to school and the changes that will have on the family.

Obviously this much anticipated time of year may be experienced as exciting or stressful, depending on the situation and one's perspective. This is true regardless whether your child is heading off to kindergarten for the first time or leaving to finish his or her last year in college. Contextually, when the new school year is met with a positive framework, the stress is tolerated well, and everyone adjusts accordingly. However, of course, these types of transitions do not always go so smoothly.

Some children do experience apprehension and anxiety as they face returning to the classroom. Of course, there are a number of different factors that may be disconcerting to children, and they tend to vary depending upon the age and the developmental level of the child. Young children, as well as college students leaving home for the first time, are often concerned about separation issues-separation from Mom and Dad, the family itself, or friends and peers. They may wonder if they will be able to fit in and make new friends, if they will succeed academically. All of these concerns may be normal, but how well each child navigates them can have a potentially profound impact on their sense of self, their self-esteem, and ultimately their interpersonal and academic success.

Parents should pay attention for signs of anxiety that may be associated with back-to-school concerns. These may include direct expressions of fear or worry, physical signs of anxiety (e.g., stomachaches, headaches, loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping), or changes in behavioral routines. Again, some children may be self-aware enough to raise their concerns, while others may not, and may even deny them or be avoidant of discussions around the topic. Because of individual differences, these concerns may manifest in a variety of ways.

Regardless, the task of the parent is to help children cope effectively and adaptively, and to find ways to be supportive of the transitional process. This may mean talking to children directly about their concerns, or simply letting them know that it is okay to feel the way that they do. A more hands-on approach might involve helping children prepare for the upcoming school year, academically as well as emotionally. Not just shopping for school supplies, but helping children anticipate what other resources they might need to be successful; perhaps helping children to anticipate their difficulties and to be proactive in addressing them. This might mean helping children develop insight and awareness to the underlying reasons behind interpersonal problems or academic difficulties. If nothing else, this is an important time for parents to be empathic-to give children the opportunity to talk and to be heard. Asking questions and actively listening to the answers helps parents move past their own assumptions and really see things from the child's perspective.

While parents have the task of trying to help their children navigate these challenges, they also have the added responsibility of being attentive to their own feelings. For example, they may be sad if a son or daughter is heading off to college, but at the same time may feel pressure to be happy and excited. Sometimes the sadness does not hit until well after the fact-September or October when the kids have been gone for a few months. Regardless of the situation, parents should attempt to be self-reflective, acknowledge their feelings, and find productive and effective ways of working through them-perhaps finding ways to stay connected with children through visits or e-mails, maybe pursuing other interests or hobbies that had been previously shelved because of lack of time, spending more time with your spouse or reconnecting with old friends.

Again, August is a time of transition in many ways, and change can often mean stress. By attending to one's feelings, back-to-school can be an exciting time of year and the start of another school year filled with good memories.

John S. Schell, Ph.D.
Staff Psychologist

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