Back-to-School Mood Swings: Parenting Through Change
Ah, summer: flips flops and swimming lessons, barbeques and bug bites. Ask any adult what summer means to them and chances are good you’ll get an answer steeped in nostalgia for childhood, fireflies and July 4th fireworks. But summer is a short season compared to the rest of the year—the school year—and for many families the end of summer can bring up powerful emotions. Parents and children may find themselves on the same page, mourning the end of shared fun times, or they may find themselves at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of their emotions, kids sad and grieving the loss of summer’s freedom or friendships while parents find relief in the return to schedules and structure.
All of these changes—in routines, structures, perhaps new bus routes or school schedules—may well bring mood changes and rough spots to get through. Let’s take a closer look at some tips and tricks to ease the turbulence.
Just the Blues or Something More Serious?
While it is normal for children experiencing changes to act out, express negative emotions or retreat into silence or isolation briefly, how can a parent distinguish between a kid who is just bummed out that summer is over and a child showing early signs of a more serious or entrenched depression?
- Watch for changes in appetite and sleep cycles that last more than a couple of days. Overeating or refusing to eat for more than a couple of days is a concern. Similarly, insomnia or sleeping all day might be normal or acceptable for one or two nights, but if that becomes a pattern, consider it a red flag.
- Is your child no longer interested in friends or activities he or she used to enjoy? Is your child saying he won’t go out for the fall sports team he has been passionate about in the past? Loss of interest or enjoyment in activities your child used to love is another red flag.
- Depression in children can look awfully cranky. If your child is not an adolescent (we’re ruling out hormones here) and has been getting adequate sleep (overtired children are always cranky!) but is more irritable than usual, consider this another indicator of a more serious problem. In some people, children as well as adults, depression looks more angry, irritable or even hostile than it does sad.
- Finally, tearfulness that does not resolve after a couple of days should be considered a red flag too. Most children will be sad when they feel they are losing something wonderful (a summer friend, or their freedom to sleep late), and some may be tearful for a couple of days, but when school starts and new experiences eclipse the prior ones, the sadness and the tears should evaporate.
If your child is showing signs or depression and not just moodiness, make a doctor’s appointment. Sometimes other medical issues can masquerade as depression, so you should make sure you have a definite diagnosis. Depression is treatable and common, but left untreated it can be a serious or even fatal disease.
Beating the Bummed Out Mood
Stress is tough on everyone in the family and transitions can be stressful. Summers are often demanding in their own way, but by Labor Day most families have their summer routine sorted out. To have to change again for back-to-school is hard on everyone. After making sure your child really is just bummed out and having trouble adjusting (but not seriously depressed), you can try some of the following ideas for helping ease the sting of September.
- Acknowledge what your child is feeling and be present with their emotions. Show him or her that you can be supportive and strong and that you don’t need your child to be happy all the time. That is pressure he or she doesn’t need right now. Don’t try to transform the feeling or convince your child that it isn’t really that bad. Trust your child that he or she will get there, but the way to feeling better is just that: feeling. Be with your child as he or she feels his or her feelings.
- When your child is ready to talk about specifics (“I’m sad because I miss Susie,” for example), problem-solve with your child about how to help with that situation. Photos printed out and made into a poster or book might be one way to spend time with Susie; an email or hand written letter might be another.
- Anticipate some anxiety about the new school year. Most kids have at least some nervousness regarding all the newness that is headed their way: new bus routes or new teachers, new school or new schedules. Again, hear your child’s fears and be careful to respect them. Then, when your child has been heard, discuss problem solving approaches with him or her.
- Alone or with your spouse, acknowledge your own emotions regarding the end of the summer and the beginning of a new school year. This time of year might hold some strong memories or emotions for you too and airing them out with your partner might be an important part of moving through this adjustment phase.