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Take a breath. You've got this: Tips for Calming the Chaos of Back to School

Key Points

  • Back-to-school times are mentally exhausting for parents. Combined with COVID stress and the load is sometimes too much to handle.
  • Your children likely feel similar emotions that you are as they enter this new transition: excitement, worry, and overwhelm.
  • Being mindful, practicing compassion, and cutting a few corners are a couple of ways to bring more calm, ease, and balance into the stressful days of the school year.
Take a breath. You've got this: Tips for Calming the Chaos of Back to School

Key Points

  • Back-to-school times are mentally exhausting for parents. Combined with COVID stress and the load is sometimes too much to handle.
  • Your children likely feel similar emotions that you are as they enter this new transition: excitement, worry, and overwhelm.
  • Being mindful, practicing compassion, and cutting a few corners are a couple of ways to bring more calm, ease, and balance into the stressful days of the school year.

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As a child, summers felt like an endless, free-flowing adventure. Summer break was biking to the corner store for candies, road trips and camping. I didn’t have the slightest concept of what that season was for my parents: an impossible balancing act. That is, until now.

These days, I’m enjoying those late-summer novelties but I’m also balancing work and family life… during a pandemic. Sound familiar? With the back-to-school season, parents are more than ready for some structure, balance, and dare I say it, time away from the kiddos. What I’m noticing in my work as a mental health therapist is that parents are utterly exhausted from the juggling act of pandemic parenting, especially as they approach a new school year.

With some added awareness, compassion, and intentional steps to manage the stress, it’s possible to settle into this new chapter with more ease than you may have thought. But rather than trying to avoid inevitable stress, I’m going to help you handle it better with some mental health tips.

Why Back-To-School Is Mentally Exhausting

Let’s start with a break-down of why this time of the year brings on so much parental stress so that you can release self-judgement and instead see why it makes perfect sense to be struggling right now.

The Mental Load Is Too Heavy

Parenting can seriously feel like being the ringleader of a chaotic circus. You’re responsible not only for the logistics like getting your child to and from school, finding after-school care, and changing your work schedule (again), but you’re also carrying the more nuanced family needs. You have to set a new bedtime so your child will actually wake up in the morning. You’re brushing up on your child’s reading routine after the summer. You’re planning what clothes, shoes, and packs to buy so your kids feel prepared and proud.

You only have so much cognitive capacity, and you’re at your limit.

Emotions Are High

Back-to-school can unveil the hardest emotions for kiddos. They feel unsure of their social connections and daily routine. They don’t know what their teacher will be like. They feel overwhelmed, just like we do.

As their emotional support, you’re the one who holds your kids’ hardest emotions. They do their best all day to fit in and do well. When they come home, they’re finally free to unleash all that’s been bottled up. You’re the sounding board, their safe place, their comfort zone. This is a heavy role that increases your stress. You care deeply. And so, you might feel on edge as your children adjust.

Extra Pandemic-Related Stressors

You’re also facing additional stressors because of the pandemic. You might be concerned about how a group of little children could possibly follow safety precautions. It seems impossible. Some people’s choices don’t align with yours and this can be uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking.

There’s also what I call micro-losses that have come from the pandemic. I remember bringing my youngest daughter to preschool for the first time last fall. Because of the pandemic, we couldn’t walk her into the school to make sure she was settled, or help her figure out details like where to hang her backpack. For a parent who’s new to the school system, it’s a big ask to just walk away without knowing how your child is doing.

The point here is that you might notice small changes due to the pandemic that feel like a loss. These add more stress to your already overwhelming transition.

How To Manage Back-To-School Stress

There are some things you can do to bring more calm, ease, and balance into these stressful early days of the new school year.

Be Mindful of Your Emotional State

It’s easy to get swept into the back-to-school storm and feel a constant frantic energy, so it’s important to purposely pause and assess how you’re feeling. When we start by observing and naming our emotions and thoughts, we remove ourselves from being completely consumed by them. When you become a spectator of your own thought processes, you regain space to notice what else is there. Sure, you might feel worried, but maybe you also feel excited and hopeful.

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Mindful awareness of your emotions also gives you the ability to care for yourself, rather than continuing to feel stressed.

Practice Compassion

Parents are notorious for self-judgement. We absorb these incredibly high societal standards of motherhood, and when we can’t live up to them, we feel like failures. Your packed lunches don’t look anything like they do on Instagram. Your house isn’t tidy. You feel like the disheveled parent at drop off.

Comparison and self-criticism drive overwhelm and anxiety. Practicing self-compassion, on the other hand, creates an internal sense of safety, ease, and kindness.

Self-compassion is about coming to a more neutral and understanding way of treating yourself. Remind yourself that this transition is going to be difficult and that’s okay. Use inner dialogue like “Wow, this feels really hard for me” or “It makes sense that I feel this way.”

Cut Corners

When you’re up against a stressful transition, something's got to give. So given that some balls will drop anyway, why not be more intentional about which ones hit the floor?

I like the concept of cutting corners, or letting things be easier. Remember, unrealistic expectations create a sense of personal failure, so what if you could temporarily lower the bar so that you didn’t feel like you’re falling short all the time? Maybe you serve frozen dinners when busy, let the housework go, or accept help even if that means things won’t be done as you would have.

Soothe Your System

When stress is high, we tend to cycle through worries and what-ifs. (What if my child doesn’t make any friends? What if the other kids don’t wear their masks?) We prepare for the worst, and drive ourselves into threat-mode and activate our fight-or-flight response. If we can connect our awareness with the body, we ground ourselves into the present moment and signal to the brain that we’re safe. This brings a relaxed state and sense of calm.

One of the most effective ways to do this is with breath. A few minutes of simple deep belly breathing is enough to create a feeling of calm, clarity, and safety in your nervous system. Another possibility is to pay attention to all your physical senses for a few moments. What do you hear, see, smell, feel, taste?

When you’re overwhelmed, you’re more likely to raise your voice, show frustration, and feel irritable. But when you can calm your nervous system, you’re much more likely to be the parent you want to be.

How To Help Your Children Manage The Stress

Your children are likely feeling similar emotions that you are as they enter this new transition: excitement, worry, and overwhelm. It’s tough to accept that you can’t prevent their inevitable ups and downs, but you can ease them into this transition.

Give them permission to feel exactly how they feel

Your child will likely be feeling a lot of big emotions together: uncertainty, worry, excitement, confusion, and joy. Your job is to give them permission to feel exactly as they feel, without judgement. Normalize the full spectrum of emotions and offer language to help your child understand what they’re feeling. You could say something like, “You’re feeling so much! You’re excited and happy, but also worried all at the same time! I totally understand that.”

Help Them Feel In Control

When uncertainty is high, it’s helpful to find control and predictability somewhere. Try to include your child in age-appropriate decisions, like what to wear, which new backpack they want, or what to bring for lunch. This gives them that sense of control. It’s also helpful to walk them through what they can expect when they start school and answer their questions.

Add More Downtime

When stress is high, we need to find moments of downtime and pause wherever possible. Your child will feel very tired, overstimulated and excited with these new changes. See if you can give them extra breathing space and downtime, and be mindful of not adding too many extra activities. Not all downtime is created equally. For example, being out in nature, or having quiet tech-free time is far more soothing than endlessly scrolling social media or video games.

Make a habit of talking about the day

You’ll be curious to know how your child’s day went, but they’ll often say something vague like “it was good.” Creating a family routine of talking about the ups and downs of the day leads to open communication. In our family, we talk about our rose and thorn of the day, referring to the high and low points.

You’ll All Adjust With Time

Going into this back-to-school season with a game plan of how to manage the extra stress for the entire family will help you ride the waves. Remember that just like learning to parent, this will take time and practice. You’re allowed to grow, to learn, to make mistakes and then try again. You’ll forget that form. You’ll be late some days. You’ll get so worked up and use a tone of voice you’re not proud of. And you’ll get better with time.

Before you know it, you’ll be in a new groove, structure and routine. And your kids will amaze you with their resilience and ability to adjust. Soon enough, you’ll be craving the free-flowing summer days ahead. But for now, be patient and compassionate with yourself.

Summary of Strategies

  1. Mindful check in: How am I doing right now?
  2. Self-compassion: It makes sense that I feel this way.
  3. Cutting corners: How could I take something off my plate?
  4. Creating inner calm: How can I take a moment for myself?