With schools starting this week in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – Scotland started last week – children around the country will excitedly embark on a fresh new year (hopefully without much online learning).
While this time might be exciting for schoolchildren, for parents, it can be less thrilling.
While empty nest syndrome – the feeling of emptiness parents get after their children have moved out – is often discussed for teens going off to university and adult life, we don’t talk a lot about how hard it is for parents on the first day of nursery, primary, or secondary school.
Especially in the pandemic, when we’ve spent an unprecedented amount of time with our families through multiple lockdowns, going back to daily separation can feel like a lot.
Anita Cleare, parenting expert and author of The Work/Parent Switch, says back to school can feel overwhelming for lots of reasons.
“Back to school signals the end of summer and all the extra family time that summer brings. Parents might feel regret that they won’t be spending so much time with their children, or they might feel enormous relief about returning to a fixed daily routine and no longer having to scrabble around finding childcare or holiday activities,” she tells HuffPost UK.
“For some parents, the new school year can be a very anxious time. Just like children, parents are often nervous about the prospect of a different teacher or a new school. It’s natural to worry about how our child will cope without us in a new situation.”
The return to school can also make parents feel sad as it signals that our children are growing up. “We are moving into a new phase and losing a part of their childhood,” says Cleare.
The pandemic has added a degree of precariousness for parents: how Covid-safe will schools be, and will online learning make a return?
“We are parenting in a time of enormous unpredictability,” Cleare says. “There is definitely a sense this year of ‘fingers crossed’ that children won’t be bouncing in and out of school due to closures and disruptions. Being a working parent is hard enough, but when you can’t make firm plans it gets even more stressful.”
Some parents may also find it nerve-wracking to hand over care responsibilities, particularly when families have spent so much time together during the pandemic.
“This year, some parents have the added complication of also heading back to the office after an extended period working from home,” says Cleare. “That might mean returning to a long commute, extra stress of family mornings and evenings and the worry of not being there so much for our children.”
On the other hand, some parents may be looking forward to the time apart.
“So many parents see how school closures have negatively impacted on their children and are desperate for a return to normality and to all the opportunities that school brings,” says Cleare. “It’s ok to be looking forward to waving the children off!”
What can parents do to make it easier?
If you are worried, Cleare advises talking back to your negative thoughts. Parents can get very caught up in “what if” thought trains and these fuel worries.
If you catch yourself in negative hypothetical thinking, remind yourself that an alternative future in which something positive happens is just as likely.
Back to school is a great time to set yourself some new year resolutions. Perhaps there are new habits from the summer or from the past year that you want to keep doing. This is a great time of year to think about positive changes you want to keep or to introduce.