Managing the back-to-school mental load

It’s time to get back to school after the relaxing festive break. The new year can be a challenging time for parents as they juggle kids’ back-to-school anxieties with work pressures, not to mention the expense of uniforms, shoes, stationery and extracurricular activities.

So how do you manage the mental load? We look at some handy tips for a smooth transition into the new school year.

Plan ahead

One good thing about the start of the school year is the fixed date, so you can start planning early. You can work out back-to-school budgets, fill up calendars, and organise your work schedule ahead of time.

Aside from all the practical considerations, there can be emotional preparations too. Planning could also mean talking to your kids about their hopes and fears for the year ahead.

Organise your finances

According to an Australian survey, parents spend an average of $476 per child on back-to-school costs, which can place an additional financial burden on families. Organising your finances ahead of time can reduce the stress involved in the new school year.

“Calculating the total of cost of starting, or going back to school means we can set money aside in our weekly budgets, rather than getting a shock at the cash register,” says Jane Monica-Jones, a financial therapist.

Make a list

Keeping a list on your phone or in your diary is a great way to reduce the mental load, says Monica-Jones. You can buy things every time you’re out shopping, rather than in one big hit.

“This way, it’s easily integrated into your routine rather than having to set aside a whole day to tick those items off the list.”

Focus on the big-ticket items

“Time and energy for many parents is limited, so it's important to focus on the big-ticket items when it comes to back-to-school planning,” says Monica-Jones.

She recommends comparing big-ticket items to find the best deal, rather than spending valuable time driving to the bulk stationery store for discounted glue sticks and pen packs.

Be savvy with school uniform costs

Most school uniform shops offer brand new and second-hand school uniform items. Households generally have a mix of new and second-hand uniforms in their wardrobes to reduce costs, says Monica-Jones.

“With kids growing so fast in this period, there’s little need to spend on brand new uniforms. This system means you’re saving money as well as reducing the amount of clothing going to landfill”.

Learn to say ‘no’

Sometimes it feels like our kids’ only purpose in life is to keep asking for more. It’s not just about satisfying our child's wants - it also relates to testing boundaries, an important life skill in interpersonal relationships.

Monica-Jones advises that while it's important to teach children to break through barriers - strive higher and jump hurdles - it’s equally important to teach kids about the boundaries and limitations in life.

“The more we can teach our children about the limits of things like resources, time, energy and parents in a personal capacity, the more our children become respectful of these limitations and learn to curb that incessant need for more stuff.”

Tackle any back-to-school fears

Going back to school after the break can be exciting for kids, but others can find it stressful. Preparation is critical when dealing with the anxieties of a new school year.

Here are some tips for tackling fears in the build-up.

  • Work on as many unknowns as possible - for example, have a few ‘dry runs’ to school to make sure your child is familiar with the route.
  • Talk through the school day details - ‘this is where you hang up your bag’, ‘this is where you’ll meet your friends’ etc.
  • Get back to the school day routine a week ahead with regular wake-up, meal and bed times.
  • Talk about their fears - discuss any issues with teachers, friends or other concerns and work out strategies to help.
  • Discuss your kid’s goals for the year ahead and make a plan to achieve them.

Be a good communicator

The parent mental load is real at this time of year, and family communication is key to a smooth transition. Talk to your partner, support network and kids about what’s going to happen. Perhaps set up a regular family meeting or use a shared online family calendar to help with the juggle. Maybe you can stick notes on the fridge or use a chalkboard.

Whichever way you get organised, it’s important to make sure no one is quietly shouldering the financial and emotional burden of the year ahead.

Share the mental load

It’s worth remembering that everyone with kids is in the same position at this time of year, so an excellent way to deal with the stress is to help each other out. Practically, you can take it in turns to look after the kids while parents complete the school preparation, kid-free.

Emotionally, you will have an additional support network of people going through the same challenges. If the year of COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that your community can be a vital tool for surviving challenging situations.

Jane Monica-Jones is a financial therapist, author and speaker.

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