Back-to-School Blues

August 19, 2014

Jeff Beers, LMFT is a former Staff Therapist at Council for Relationships. He now serves as Staff Therapist and Manager of Operations and Program Development at Menergy, an intervention, treatment, training and education program working to stop harmful behavior and intimate partner violence.

Fall brings many changes to the lives of children and adolescents, and few experience a greater change than the transition back to school. The start of the school year marks a dramatic shift in the day-to-day lives of young people (and their parents!), as they suddenly see different faces, fill different spaces, feel different pressures and, of course, have homework.

Even those who are returning to a familiar environment can feel put off-balance by this shift, and even the most school-adoring and capable young people may have complex and challenging feelings that arise when the school year begins. I often wonder about the inner lives of children and adolescents at this time of year, and in my observations of the young people I work with and memories of my own transitions back to school, I find a few themes I wanted to share.

Change may carry a sense of loss – but not for all. We don’t often talk about the end of the summer in terms of loss, but children and parents alike may experience some aspects of grief in realizing that the life of summer has ended. Young people may feel some sadness at the disappearance of free time and long days, or feel some sense of regret at what they didn’t do on their break from school. Parents may miss the time they spent with children or mourn the loss of the often more relaxed summer schedule. On the flip side, some children or parents may feel significantly relieved to be back in school, and glad to have the cooler weather come. In truth, it’s likely that most will experience some mix of both pleasant and unpleasant feelings, but these differences in experience may be starkly apparent within peer groups, classrooms, and families. It’s important for parents to attune to what the end of summer means for their child, even if that meaning is one that seems saddening or unhelpful to the transition to school.

New year, new expectations, new pressures. Each year at school carries new responsibilities, new challenges, new peer relationships, and new social norms. The social and personal strategies that worked for a child in the one grade may need to be redeveloped for the next. As people who are generally sensitive to the expectations of others, children and adolescents may find themselves feeling confused, frustrated, worried, or exhausted by the effort to keep up with new interpersonal obligations. Until those changes in environment become internalized as the new normal, parents may find that their child needs more time to cognitively process their experience – be it verbally or non-verbally, in interaction with others or alone. Of course, some young people will see these changes as new opportunities for growth, reinvention, or a new start, and it’s important to equally honor both reactions to the new pressures of school.

Things will probably even out in time. Whatever difficulty we feel in times of transition, we often find ourselves eventually saying something like “…and then, things finally evened out.” Many of us know that within a few days, or weeks, or even months, those unsettling or unpleasant feelings that accompany change can leave us. But before that happens, young people may feel a palpable low point as the often exciting newness of school wears off. The parent’s challenge is to remain unattached to a child’s high point, to weather that low point with care and presence, and to understand that things may even out soon enough.

The transition back to school is one that will occur again and again in a young person’s life, and will be mirrored by later transitions into new jobs, new homes, new partners, or new children. As parents and caring adults, we can help young people to experience transition with security, care, and an eye for the future, and train them for changes to come in their lives beyond school.

 

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