Back to school blues?

It’s back to school for the kids.

Many parents will feel a deep sense of relief when they read that sentence.

But for parents with disabled children (and for the family as a whole), September can be stressful [1]. This might be for a few reasons.

  1. Any transition is generally more difficult

By the time your children are of school age, you’ll have come a long way to understanding their difficulties and complexities, and figured out some kind of schedule and process to deal with those difficulties. Any change to the routine, and entering a new phase away from the norm can be a challenge.

  1. New start = new people

If your child is moving up a year in school, transitioning to another stage or going to a new school, they may be working with new teachers, classroom professionals, helpers or carers. This can be challenging for two reasons. First, your child needs to readjust to new people, and second, you might feel that you’re pressing the reset button on the experience and learnings that your child made with previous carers and teachers.

  1. There’s more to think about

If your child is starting a new school, then you also have the pressure of learning about the school system, school routines, and the knock-on effect of these routines [3]. You may also need to consider the role of related service providers, such as physical therapists or speech therapists.

If you and your partner are tackling these September challenges together, you might find that the resulting stress has been testing on your relationship. As with any upcoming stressful event, feelings of worry or anxiety can creep in gradually. You may have found that the last couple of weeks have been progressively more difficult between you.

You may also find that one of you is more stressed than the other when it comes to your child going back to (or starting) school. According to research, this is very commonly the primary care giver (the person who spends the most time caring for their child). Which makes sense because they’re the ones more likely to carry the lion’s share of responsibility. This can also be a point of conflict in the relationship, because it can feel quite isolating and lonely if you’re anxious alone and carrying that stress by yourself.

All of this is normal. But here are three things you can both do:

  1. Carry your partner’s concerns, and ask them to carry yours

This is about removing feelings of isolation and that feeling of carrying a burden by yourself. If your partner is struggling more than you, it’s really helpful to listen to their fears and worries rather than discounting them. So make sure you empathise with them, even if you feel they’re getting unnecessarily worked up. While humour is a good mechanism to use, make sure you don’t make fun of their anxiety. This can backfire massively and will undo all of your empathy work. If you make light of it, you’re not with them on it. And if you’re not ‘with’ them on it, they’re alone with their stress again.

  1. Use the time to see friends and family

Evidence has repeatedly shown that keeping connections open with family and friends will strengthen your ability as a couple to handle challenges and stresses. So when your child goes back to (or starts) school, make sure you block out some time for this. Maybe even leave the house to visit them rather than letting them come to you. That way, you can change your environment - an excuse to leave the house is sometimes helpful.

  1. Talk about what you’re going to do with your time

Planning how you’re going to spend your time will help you switch the mind-set to a more positive one, and to think about yourselves a little. Because getting time together is important. We know parents often have to juggle their leave to look after the children, but if one of you works full-time, you could think about planning some time off work in the week to do something you enjoy together. This could be anything from lunch at the pub, a trip to a museum, walk in the park or just a super-relaxing duvet day together, where you can relax and feel restored. Getting this down-time together is great for you as a couple and as parents. You’ll improve your overall mood and functioning, and you’ll find yourself more able to cope with the back to school blues. 

 References:

[1] Myers and Effgen, 2006

[2] Podvey et al, 2010

[3] Hanson et al., 2001; Dockett and Perry, 2002

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