New school parent or back to school anxiety: how can we make it easier?

In the last two weeks of the school summer holidays my daughter asked me on an almost hourly basis, exactly which school locker I thought that she might be allocated (a very exciting new addition to her year 3 privileges). She was just so very excited to be going back, and yet after her first day said that she hated school, didn’t ever want to go back, wanted to be home schooled and has cried on the way into school on most mornings since.

This is not a new pattern of behaviour. This is now her fourth year of school, and my fourth year as a parent of a child in school, and it is pretty much the same each Autumn term. I now understand the effect of the harsh transition from summer holidays to the gruelling term-time routine. I am now familiar with the rounds of illness, days off school and lost work time between now and January (I know January might wishful thinking). I understand, and hope that by February half-term she will finally have settled in to her new class and be happy to walk in with no tears, and that she will be at her most confident at around April, and fly her through the summer term just in time for…the next summer holidays.

It doesn’t make me any less anxious to be aware of these markers, but I can manage both her and my expectations a little easier. I am now confident that she can survive the school day, is more able to use her own voice, and is seemingly bobbing along academically. I worry a little less about whether we made the right choice of school, whether she always has a friend to play, whether she ate enough food at lunch or whether I should be organising tutors to get her to GCSE level Maths by year 5 to achieve that all important ‘advantage’.

I try to make less comparisons, having seen that children really are all so very different and that it is fruitless to do so. We are often told and know not to do this, but unless you have older siblings to refer to then I think it is only natural to seek affirmation amongst your children’s peers in a new situation.

Through the experience of school that we have had so far, we have managed to find a level of comfort in which we can function without too much stress, but this has taken some time to establish.

So why write this? Good for me and my new-found comfort, right?

I write this in response to the many social media posts from excited new school parents, and seeing the new and apprehensive faces at the school gate. It reminded me of how I felt as a new school parent, which was certainly not comfortable.

Beyond managing daughter’s delicate array of emotions, I found myself to be nervous, anxious, unconfident, I would even go as far as to say irrational (okay – maybe on just one occasion). We frequently discuss the process that children go through, but often this is mirrored by their parents, who are trying to bolster their children’s confidence on the outside but really struggling on the inside themselves.

Now in hindsight I can see that some of my heightened feelings and emotions were a result my own levels of expectation. Before my daughter joined school, I had visions of her loving every moment, making so many new friends, riding unicorns at break-time, reading Keats by five and running into to my open arms at the end of each day, telling just how much she loved me for facilitating such a wondrous experience.

What of course actually happened was lots of tears, plenty of statements like “I hate school” “why do I have to go there?” “nobody wants plays with me” “how could you mummy?” and so on. Plenty to make you question yourself and the whole situation.

As with the rest of parenthood, no one tells you what to honestly expect. There is no guide book to tell you what you are supposed to do if you are feeling anxious, if your feelings are valid, at what points you might find yourself being over sensitive and irrational, or your if reaction is in fact justified and your worries are founded.

I can remember feeling so overwhelmed by the volume of information and communication from school and other parents that the whole pressure of it became too much. At one point, I was leaving school each day with a knotted stomach, having a cry in the car and returning to school at home time to hear the most awful stories about not having any friends, mean teachers, how they didn’t give her any lunch – all of which completely compounded my deepest fears*.

*I am now aware that these tales were largely fictional memoirs of a 4-year-old, and mostly in response to my probing and very leading end-of-day questions, but at that moment I hung off…every… single… word….Self-flagellating at every opportunity.

Becoming a school parent is a process. We each must learn as we go, having different experiences and challenges, all finding our way. What surprised me however was how long it took to realise that almost everyone feels as anxious, tired, stressed and sometimes as low as everyone else. It took me the best part of the first year to have had a decent conversation with at least one parent of most of the children in my daughter’s class to realise this, because everyone looks so goddam together!

And herein lies part of the issue. We have this notion that we are all expected to be ‘winning at life’, have every aspect mastered, and so that is what we project. Other parents, and the impression that we give to those parents, helps to create the illusion that we are all just breezing along and that school life, and in fact all life that surrounds that is simple and that you are in some way failing if you don’t keep up or find it difficult to do so. When the truth is that we are all swans, gliding elegantly and poised on the surface, paddling like crazy people underneath.

Pressures of course are not the same for everyone, they come in different guises. Some children settle into school quite easily, so their parents may not have so much of that anxiety, but they have may financial issues, or may have recently separated, or a have  a newborn baby causing sleepless nights, or an exhausting post-summer work regime, or trying to navigate wrap around child care. Everyone has their story – some more overt than others, and not all at the same time, but at some point during that school year, we will all need help.

So, what can we do? Well I’m not suggesting that we all go through our daily school routine expressing our emotions all over the place, crying at drop-off with the kids, and refusing to go in each day (tempting as that is) as let’s face it, we do have to put on somewhat of an ‘it’s all going to be fine’ face for the kids, but I do think there could be a more honest and open discussion amongst the grown-ups,  especially before school starts about the various challenges that everyone faces, so that it doesn’t feel so isolating, and we can talk about them with a little more ease with one another at the time we need to most, and stop feeling the need to be ‘winning’ and ‘happy*’ at all times.

* Every time I see a meme that tells me to ‘be happy’, I feel the urge to shout out an unpleasant word or two and certain that I’m not alone in this response, so surely writing those things is counterproductive and the creators are just passive-aggressive antagonists?!…Just a thought.

There is one set of parents not quite addressed here yet, for in every intake of brand new school children (I would say 4+ but aware this various with in regions of UK), there will always be a percentage of the class who have older siblings. Yes, those parents making it all look super easy, adding to the poor rookie parent’s anxiety.

I liken them to vampires – with their shades on at drop-off, minimal eye contact, elegant, with perfect hair and make-up, and gone in a whisper. They are invisible on the class Facebook page, you can’t even associate a child with them they are that low profile. Some of them literally have about 55 children (all of whom look equally pristine) and there is literally not a wrinkle in sight. They are, as one would suspect with such supernatural powers, intimidating.

A note to those parents: Whilst I salute you for your mastery of the school regime, including the knowledge of how the less you are involved – the simpler school life is, I urge you to cast your mind back to your very first day as a school parent, and at least give that newbie parent a warm smile or even just a fleeting moment of shades-off eye contact. That simple act of kindness could transform their entire mental state, albeit momentarily.

To the new parents, I say to remember that most of your fellow parents will be feeling the same way as you, so it is good to be mindful of heightened emotions. People might be behaving out of character, they will possibly be being over sensitive, and overprotective and feeling as vulnerable or as unconfident as you. If you ever get to the point when you feel overwhelmed, or not good enough, be brave and ask someone for a coffee and you will be surprised at how normal you feel and in fact how well you are doing. If someone upsets you, make allowances. If you see someone isn’t coping ask them how they are, and perhaps offer to help if you can.

School parent groups can offer great support. It is not always right for everyone to have frequent communications with other parents, and overfamiliarity can breed contempt so perhaps don’t go to every single social event, but it is always good to make the effort if you have the time to get to know some of the parents. I think you will always find at least one person that you find it easier to talk to, and with whom you can share your concerns and find reassurance. The PTA groups are a good way to get to know parents from other years, and you will find out a lot about the school and get to know staff by helping with their activities.

Class Facebook pages and What’s app groups are great tools (if kept to useful school and class information). I have heard some horror stories about these going wrong with awful parent rants etc. but I have found ours to be of great use so far. There is often the pressure to subscribe to these, but again there are plenty of parents that don’t and they cope just fine. With Facebook you can always affect your settings to a show a limited profile if you don’t feel like sharing your whole life story with complete strangers right away (or ever), and you can always opt-out from any platform at any time.

The final way that you can overcome some of those feelings and get to know fellow parents a little better is to have an evening out. I would say most parents like to an enjoy a tipple or two, and there is no better way to break down barriers than by doing your best sexy mum dancing in front of horrified co-parents. It’s always the quiet ones…

Please remember:

You are not alone, we all have similar feelings

We are likely to be more sensitive versions of ourselves at this time

We are likely to feel vulnerable and occasionally overreact

It is overwhelming, you are doing a great job

Sharing is caring  – find a fellow parent – download/listen

Everyone has their story (even teachers) to deal with outside of school, make allowances

#bekind

Your kids will survive the day

They will settle in and make friends

When there is an issue with your child, you will know about it

No one ever knows what they had for lunch, and if they tell you they are just making it up

It will get easier

Parents (mostly mums) really like to drink

What happens on mum’s night out, stays on mum’s out (at least I hope..)

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