Back to School During Life Changes and Challenges

“August is like the Sunday of Summer…”   This meme has been popping up across social media and traded in text messages as adults feel the approaching close of summer and tug towards transitions into the fall. Kids have also felt changes approaching as they gradually say goodbye to summer friendships and apprehensively begin asking questions: “Who will my new teacher be?” “What if the school bus is scary?” “Will my best friend be in my class again?” “How much homework will I have?” “Will I make the soccer team this year?” The questions continue, and caregivers cannot always predict the answers.

There is little doubt that this time of year and the beginning of fall stir anxiety and stress. Children and teens rely and thrive on routines and familiarity to give them a sense of safety and security. The unknowns can feel intimidating and even overwhelming–especially for those who have experienced a recent death or other significant change in their family, as the typical questions and fears are compounded by an ongoing sense of loss and a constant need to adapt. Grieving families will likely have had their relationships, roles, and routines altered – often unexpectedly – and it may feel like they manage emotions and needs daily. In addition, the children and teens may have feelings about who they do (or don’t) want to know about the death or other family changes.

While returning to school after a loss may bring apprehension, it can also bring curiosity, new energy, and a reassuring sense of structure. Caregivers play an instrumental role in helping their child or teen feel hopefulness and preparedness amid changes.

Below are some tips that The Children’s Room has to offer. We hope they will help you talk openly and plan together – as a family – for the upcoming school year.

  1. Listen to your child/teen

Kids in the midst of life changes may not openly express their emotions – particularly their fears – because they do not want the adults in their lives to worry. Invite them to share how they feel about returning to school and highlight that they might have a range of emotions. Check in about whether there is anything they are wondering about, such as changing routines. Share that you also have a range of feelings about changes, including your grief. It can also be helpful to acknowledge that some things will be different this school year, especially if they miss a family member. Respond to their questions as honestly as possible, including any concrete details. Let them know it is always okay to approach you with whatever they feel and if new questions arise. Remind them that no matter what, adults will be there to support them.

  1. Involve your child in family planning

Where possible, involve your child or teen in brainstorming ideas of what will help your family manage new routines and other changes. Be open to creative ideas, and talk together about age-appropriate responsibilities they would like to try taking. Share a level of confidence that it might not always be easy and that you will make changes together, one step at a time, as a family, and there is room to revise plans if necessary

  1. Connect with the school

It is important to let your child’s school know about your family’s loss and other changes and make a plan together to support your child.

Consider your child or teen’s questions, concerns, and preferences as you plan for connecting with the school. Have a family discussion about what information your child is comfortable sharing, which school staff they trust, and what specifically would feel most supportive and helpful during a school day. Give them examples, such as having a card to signal if they need a break, setting a point person for those moments, and using coping strategies such as breathing exercises or stress balls.

Share with school staff how your child has been responding to changes in their family. It is important to acknowledge that grief often affects students academically, as their energy, concentration, memory, and motivation naturally shift due to emotions and stress. Discuss whether school counselors or social workers are available – your child may need them as someone to check in with or as an advocate. Ask for specific plans on how the school will support your child and encourage open communication.

  1. Create new routines & expectations

Engaging in new activities can bring hopefulness, a positive focus, a sense of normalcy, and new friendships and support. It also can take a lot of energy when you might already be worn emotionally and physically.

As you think about new roles, schedules, and activities, be realistic about your individual and your family’s capacities. Set boundaries where needed so that expectations are not overwhelming. Open yourself up to accepting help from others – friends and family may have wanted to offer, and just were unsure what would be helpful. Communicate with them – don’t be shy to be specific about what might be helpful. For example, ask if they can share car rides or offer support in other ongoing ways.

Each of these ideas may help to make an uncertain time and new routines a little more manageable. Holding life and family changes alongside a new school year can bring stress and anxiety; however, it can also be positive in bringing new energy and hopes for the future. Whenever possible, approach these changes as a family – talking together about the challenges and the things they are curious about and making concrete plans about what to expect. Also, maintain open communication with school staff over time, as they can bring invaluable support and resources. When moments or days feel difficult, remember that your child’s self-confidence is gradually being built by navigating new situations, forming new relationships, and finding new supports.

This entry is kindly contributed by Christine Lambright, MA, MAAT, LMHC, Program Director – Schools & Community, The Children’s Room. The Children’s Room offers grief support services for children and families, for schools, and for community organizations.