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When mom or dad has the back-to-school blues

Some parents may be cheering the start of a new school year. Others are singing the blues. What to do if the one dreading the new school year is mom or dad.
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Some parents are cheering the start of a new year. Other parents, however, may be singing the blues, knowing they’ll be missing leisurely days of easy hugs or spontaneous family outings as their little ones learn to navigate school hallways and unfamiliar social terrain.

"I have four boys and having them all home for the summer can be chaotic, but I've really enjoyed the last couple of years with my youngest one at home," says Shairna Bluesteen, a 33-year-old stay-at-home mom from Burke, Va. "We had two days a week when we got to spend time together and he would call them 'hugging days.' We'd just sit on the couch and watch TV and hug."

Bluesteen, who starts nursing school on the same day her son heads off to kindergarten, says she's particularly blue that she's going to miss seeing him climb onto the bus.

"It's going to break my heart not to be there when he gets on the bus," she says. "I'll miss getting him ready and waving at the bus.”

For Dominique Anderson, a 36-year-old mom and owner of a Memphis, Tenn. public relations firm, it’s the long day her 5-year-old daughter faces as she starts “real school,” putting an end to weekday family outings. 

"My husband and I can't pick her up and take her to the zoo or to lunch," she says. "It's very sad.  As for seeing her only child walking into a classroom for the first time, Anderson says she expects some tears.

"I'm probably going to be a little bit of a crybaby about it," she says. "She's growing up and it's going to be sad...I'll probably be that mommy in the bushes looking in the window until lunch."

The first day of kindergarten is “a huge milestone” – for parents, as well as kids, says Deanna Pledge, a Columbia, Mo., psychologist specializing in family and child development. "Once they go to school, the child is embarking on a life of his or her own. [They're] going to find other positive role models and the parent is going to be less central. It's really the beginning of that process when children begin to see their parents as people, warts and all.”

It’s normal for parents of young children to get the back-to-school blues, even feeling a little loss of identity as the child ventures away from the nest.

Pledge says some parents need to work "very consciously to reinvent [themselves] without that child at the center of their universe."

If you’re dreading a new school year, there are simple ways to cope with the separation anxiety, even if you can’t watch your little one get on the bus

  • Be a school volunteer. "There are lots of opportunities for parents to be involved in the school," says Pledge. Plan a school party, sign up as a reading volunteer or math aid or come in on career day to talk about your job, she advises. "It's also nice for the child," she says. "It gives them a sense of being special."
  • Pursue other interests. Parents who suddenly have time on their hands can embrace interests they may have put off, such as yoga, music lessons, a book club, volunteering at a food bank or signing up for some adult education classes, says Pledge.  
  • Remember, it's OK to cry. Don’t do it at the child's school, or in front of the child, but it’s OK to cry in private. “Any kind of change can engender feelings of loss,” says Pledge. “Losing day-to-day contact does require a shift and sometimes that's a little uncomfortable." It will hurt, she says, but it will also get better.

And it’s also OK if you feel more like cheering than crying at the sight of a little one climbing onto the school bus.

"There's a whole range of emotions," she says. "Sometimes parents are quite pleased about their kids going back to school."

Dads can also have mixed feelings about a new school year. Jonathan Shipley, a 38-year-old Seattle writer says he was both wistful and joyful about his daughter starting kindergarten. "Now, as she's entering fourth grade, that's amplified. She'll get to learn about science and Von Gogh and how to play trombone if she wants,” says Shipley. “Do I feel sad that she's no longer that little baby that I got to regale with my infinite knowledge? No. It's great, because now she gets to regale me a little."

Does back-to-school time leave you feeling a little sad or doing the happy dance? Tell us on Facebook!

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