SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

September 13, 2013

Dr. Kate Roberts: Back-to-school: Parents, take care of yourselves

Dr. Kate's Parent Rap
Dr. Kate Roberts

---- — I can tell when the school year has begun by the piles of paper in the center of my kitchen counter that migrate to the edges by mid-week. There are permission forms for pictures, school trips, buses, school lunches, band, student council, event reminder forms, teacher introduction and expectation forms, and demographic forms; one for each child.

This doesn’t include extra-curricular forms like team sportsmanship agreements, game and practice schedules, teammate information, uniform information, etc.

Most parents I have talked to are already feeling overwhelmed, and the homework, the projects and the sporting and extracurricular events have not even started. Parents, how are we going to get through this school year if the first two weeks have us exhausted?

In the start of a new school year we tend to look for a rebirth of sorts. But let’s face it, unless parents take some precautions, parents and children, entire families even, might end up burnt out by April. Like running a marathon, pacing is everything. For recent television coverage on this topic, click here.

As in previous generations, parents and their children feel pressured to keep up with the neighbors. Unlike in the past, parents may be losing ground instead of gaining it. For example, kids today have the upper hand in technology, and parents often rely on their kids to teach them the ropes. All of this combined weighs heavily during the long school year, and as a result parents are at risk for burnout. Recently I coined “burnt-out parent syndrome” to describe this growing phenomenon in parents today.

The antidote to this is self-care and nurturing, but many parents have lost the ability to take care of their own needs, too consumed with caring for their children’s needs and everyone else’s. How can parents care for their children’s emotional, spiritual and individual concerns when their own go unattended?

Remember that on a plane, parents have to put their own oxygen masks on before they assist their children, but somehow in day-to-day life this lesson gets lost. Instead, during the busy school year, parents unwittingly put their own needs aside to meet those of their children: “Just this one time, I’ll skip my routine to attend your game,” and one time turns into the routine rather than the exception.

In the spring, when many parents expect to be coming into the homestretch, school and extracurricular kid responsibilities ramp up instead. Kids may have state or national exams, spring sports, class trips, final projects and final exams. For signs that you may be already at risk for burnout, read here.

How can parents prepare now for the hectic pace of the school year, including having energy for the final sprint to the finish line of summer?

Here are some tips:

Stick to a self-care routine. Make a pact with a support system to check in about consistency. At the first signs of veering offtrack, don’t — even if the kids have to miss out on something. Parents who take care of themselves are more present when their kids really need them.

Plan ahead. Use a school syllabus and organization tools in advance to avoid being blindsided later.

Know what to expect, especially when agreeing to more than one sport or activity. Don’t get pressured into agreeing to more than you can handle. Your kids will adjust if you have a solid rationale for doing what you can at any one time.

Limit activities. Have a conversation with your child and explain the concept of “we can’t do it all.” A visual calendar with days and times will illustrate a parent’s position nicely when limiting activities.

Role model. Use yourself as an example of someone who is responsible and who does activities well because you do not try to take on everything at once.

Designate a weekly review time. Maybe one hour on Friday afternoons to go over everything that is needed for the upcoming two weeks. Allow time for planning and prevent being caught off guard.

Don’t take too much on. Don’t volunteer for everything; don’t jump onto every good idea. Both parents and kids bear the brunt of it. Parents can’t do everything. Accept limits and everyone will be happier.

Spend quality time with your kids. Kids are forgiving when they occasionally miss an activity as long as they have positive time with their parents.

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Dr. Kate Roberts is a psychologist and parent coach on the North Shore. Questions can be directed to www.drkateroberts.com, www.twitter.com/DrKateParenting, www.facebook.com/Dr.KateRoberts or www.pinterest.com/DrKateParenting.