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Lori L. Cangilla, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and creator of Singularly Sensitive, an approach that helps highly sensitive/empath women find creative, holistic, mindful ways to grow. She is the author of Self-Acceptance and Change: A Guided Journal for Highly Sensitive People.
We recently had a rough school morning: tired eyes, forgetful minds, and shorter-than-usual tempers all around. Despite getting up when the alarm went off, we were racing at the last minute, grabbing a forgotten water bottle in a dash to the door.

We aren’t going to a new school or doing anything unusual. Why was this so hard?

Because it was a Monday. And only the third day of school.

As that realization set in, I realized I’d fallen into the same trap that so many other moms fall into: forgetting that the adjustment to the school year takes time. More than three days, especially with the weekend to get us out of our barely emerging routine.

You and your kids are not alone in struggling through back-to-school time! Despite all the happy faces and fancy lunches on social media, everyone has difficulties with this process. No matter our age, we may feel inept when we can’t figure things out right away, make mistakes, yell, cry, or react out of emotion. For moms who are rearranging schedules and creating new systems to make sure everyone is fed, clothed, and in the right place at the right time with books, sports gear, or musical instruments, it’s a recipe for exhaustion and burnout.

And empath mamas and highly sensitive adults and kids tend to feel the pain of the back-to-school transitions even more. We pick up on all the emotions of our families, teachers, bus drivers and carpool organizers are feeling. If we felt any calm vibes over the summer, they have been replaced by frazzled nerves in September. And our minds can’t help going into overdrive, looking for solutions, blaming ourselves for not doing better, worrying about our kids, and wishing this weren’t so hard, despite our best efforts to make everything go smoothly.

While I can’t promise you a foolproof system to make mornings run like a well-oiled machine or to bypass the homework and bedtime bobbles, I do have three suggestions for ways to help yourself feel more ease with the transition. And since our kids, especially the highly sensitive ones, are going to follow our emotional lead, I can’t say enough about the importance of taking care of your own mental state.

Manage Expectations

I have to frequently remind myself, my mom friends, and my clients is that transitions are always tough and always take time. We collectively tend to forget that it takes a while and likely some fruitless experiments to get into a school year groove. Make sure to remind yourself and your kiddos that this is typical and expected, not a bad thing.

The word transition comes from a Latin root meaning “go across.” As we go across from summer to school year, set the expectation that the journey will be slow and have obstacles. Then, when it happens, you can spare yourself the emotional pain and racing thoughts that come from assuming that something is wrong.

Cultivate a Growth Mindset

Perhaps your school system, like ours, puts an emphasis on cultivating a growth mindset. It’s a concept that comes from Carol Dweck’s studies of how kids who believe that they can put in an effort and eventually learn, increase their skills, and accomplish more do end up having higher academic achievements. She called this a growth mindset.

We’ve since seen that growth mindsets are helpful in many contexts, not just academics. Why not see if you can foster a growth mindset about back-to-school for you and your family? Embrace the idea of “yet.” We haven’t gotten the timing of the bus run down yet. Our child hasn’t remembered all the steps to getting dressed yet. We didn’t stick to the meal plan yet. “Yet” is a word that reminds us that there’s hope. We can focus on the effort and improvement we’re seeing, and not just the results we’ve gotten so far.

Practice Compassion

At times where life feels hectic and bumpy, it’s easy to be harsh and impatient. Setting an intention to practice compassion for others and ourselves can help us soften the experience of back-to-school season. Try to look at the things that are upsetting, annoying, or aggravating from a lens of gentleness. Who is growing—and hurting as they go through their growth pains? How can we remember that this is a process? What difference will it make in a month, a year, ten years if XYZ is not perfect in this moment?

It goes without saying that you deserve as much kindness as you extend to others. If you need to work on self-compassion, try slowing down your breathing, seeing yourself as a dear friend might see you, and being open to the idea that you, too, are a work in progress who deserves grace, forgiveness, and love.

When All Else Fails…

Even if you lose your keys and the kids forget their homework, lose their permission slip, and everyone eats cereal for dinner, you’ll get a chance to do it all over again. Tomorrow is a new day. See if you notice one thing that gets easier, goes more smoothly, or happens more automatically. Celebrate that progress.

And after all your efforts, if you’re still having trouble managing expectations, cultivating a growth mindset, and practicing compassion, here’s my best piece of advice: get some sleep. Put the kiddos, your partner, and yourself to bed. Sleep is like a reset button for empathic, highly sensitive nervous systems. And few of us sleep enough at any time, but especially during the back-to-school season. Sweet dreams and warmest wishes!

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