How to prepare for a stress-free return to school, for parents and children

From helping to ease anxiety to getting messed-up summer sleep routines back on track, Jen Hogan shares her tips

Back to school is just around the corner, and with it an endless to-do list, and seemingly endless purchases to be made. It can be a stressful time for both parents and children. This year we’re in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, and feeling the pinch much more than before.

So, with the clock ticking, how can parents use the time left to prepare themselves and the kids for the return of the school routine? What’s the best way to get their sleeping habits back on track? Should parents help navigate friendships or manage anxieties children may have ahead of the return? And are there any ways to save money when costs are spiralling?

The anxious child

While the return to school after the long summer holidays is just par for the course for many children, it’s a source of stress and anxiety for others – and even more so after the damaging disruption of school closures in recent years.

It’s something child and adolescent psychotherapist Colman Noctor is very conscious of. “There has definitely been an increase in attendance issues since the last few years of lockdowns,” he says. “Social distancing, pods and mask-wearing impacted on the relationship that children and teens formed with the school-going experience. The developmental delays are also evident as we see many children struggling with the expectations that the school environment is placing on them.”


For some children, school closures provided a belief that school attendance was not “imperative”, Noctor says. “Avoidance became a viable option or coping strategy, but this is a poor coping strategy and is also an unsustainable one. Many teens on the periphery of the education system have especially struggled to reintegrate and re-engage.”

Anxiety is a fear of the unknown, Noctor explains, and for that reason he recommends providing as many “knowns” as possible before the return.

“Ask them what they’re worried about,” he advises. “Transitioning to secondary school can be particularly anxiety-provoking. This is anticipation anxiety and often subsides after commencing in the new environment.”

‘Try not to promise that all will be okay, because you can’t guarantee that’

Noctor suggests taking “a measured approach in terms of the August run-in. Don’t over-ham it, or go on about it, that just agitates anxiety. But don’t have it as an ambush for them in September either.

“Try not to promise that all will be okay, because you can’t guarantee that. But you can promise that no matter what happens, you as the parent will do what you can to resolve it.”

For students with additional needs, Noctor suggests a similar approach but to include reassurances that any additional requirements, such as learning aids, will be sourced for them. Some may need reassurance that these won’t make them “stand out”, that its purpose is to support them.

In need of a friend

Few things are more certain to crush a parent than asking their child “who did you play with today?” only to hear the reply “no one”. And who among us has not panicked upon hearing this, taken the day off work and run down to the schoolyard at break time, anticipating a scene where their beloved child is forlorn and playing all alone, only to discover them laughing their heads off, having the mightiest of fun with their classmates? Not just me, surely?

But what about when our children really are struggling to make friends, or our teens can’t seem to find their tribe? Should we, as parents, step in? Or do we need to learn to step back?

“Friendships are vitally important for a child’s maturation and development,” psychotherapist Richard Hogan explains. “It is in these early friendships that they learn important life skills like compromise, connecting with others, caring, resilience. When these early relationships are positive, they can significantly build a child’s self-esteem as they come to view themselves as valuable and worthy.”

The opposite, however, is also true. “Social rejection that can happen so easily in school can literally hurt a child. The same part of the brain fires when a child is rejected by their peers, as when a child burns their hand,” he says.

“Peer relationships become even more significant as children move into adolescence. They move away from their parents as the pillars of support, to their peer group.”

Hogan says while it’s good for children to build friendships “organically”, which can happen over the summer through local summer camps, a shy child might need some help from their parents. “You might need to contact parents and organise a playdate with someone you know is going to be in their class in September. The more people they know, the better, and the less chance of feeling awkward going into school.”

Encouraging children to meet up with their school friends over the summer is important, he explains. “The more they meet their friends, the less shy they will become. They might often need a little nudge from parents to go out and call for a friend. They might build this up as a big event in their head but once they push themselves to do that they will see that it wasn’t that big of a deal in the first place. When we notice our children are avoiding calling for friends or going out, we must help them out of that thinking by proving the logic they are running is incorrect. The more they stay in, the more their confidence will suffer.”

‘Teenagers generally don’t like to talk about the fact that they are struggling to make friends, but it is far more common than we would like to think’

Helping teenagers with friendships is more difficult, Hogan says. “Teenagers generally don’t like to talk about the fact that they are struggling to make friends, but it is far more common than we would like to think… It is incredible how quickly a teenager can start to flourish once they feel respected and valued by their peer group.”

Depending on the circumstances, parental involvement can help here too, Hogan explains. “If you know the parents of your child’s friend and you trust them (that is key) to keep it between you both, it might be a good idea to have a conversation with them about how your son or daughter is struggling with friendships. They might be able to encourage their child to reach out and connect with your child in a way that isn’t forced or set up.” This needs to be managed well by both sets of parents, Hogan cautions, adding: “If a child feels they are being pressurised to be friends with someone, they could push back against it.”

Hogan also says: “Encouraging your child to take part in an activity could widen their circle of friends – the more they have, the more chance they have of being invited somewhere. Children often have a narrow friendship circle and so if there is a rupture or falling out they are left with no one. It’s important to ensure this doesn’t happen, because teenagers fall out quite often.”

Sleepy time

The brighter days, longer evenings and the often freer mornings of the summer holidays, mean regular bedtimes are typically abandoned for the summer months. But sleep matters, as any parent of an overtired, cranky child will testify – and not just for the sake of the parents’ sanity.

Five- to 12-year-olds need between nine and 12 hours sleep, while those aged 13 to 18 need eight to 10 hours, sleep consultant Tessa O’Connor explains. Along with irritability, lack of sleep can lead to “lack of motivation, difficulties concentrating and learning, increased stress levels, and forgetfulness”, she says.

“Over the summer, bedtime can become later… Children may be getting less sleep overall as they go to bed later. It does not automatically mean they sleep later – it is often the opposite.”

For teenagers who appear to be better at sleeping in, the shift in sleeping pattern can prove problematic when that opportunity to sleep later is gone, O’Connor says.

Adjusting bedtimes ahead of back-to-school can be done either gradually or all at once, she suggests. “Ensure you have a solid and predictable bedtime routine in place that helps your child wind down. Wake up at the usual time for school days, and start the day so that their body clock can get used to this also.”

Visual aids such as reward charts can help. She also advises parents to limit screen time before bed, and adds that blackout blinds can be very helpful for children who struggle to sleep due to the brighter evenings.

While teenagers may not need as long to readjust to school bedtimes, they may need some encouragement to get back into the swing of it. “Something simple like a bath, PJs, brush teeth, read for a while and then lights out,” she says.

“Screen and device use can also negatively impact the quality of sleep, so I suggest perhaps agreeing to turn them off an hour before bedtime, leaving them out of the bedroom and keeping them off until after breakfast. Deciding this together may be easier than just imposing rules without discussion. We want our teenagers to feel supported, listened to and part of the decision making,” she advises.

“A dark and quiet room can be beneficial for all ages. Plenty of fresh air during the day can help us sleep better at night. If you have a teen who has been spending lots of time indoors on the computer, encourage them to take a short walk outside during the day.”

O’Connor also recommends avoiding stimulants such as energy drinks, fizzy drinks and tea and coffee, and setting a regular wake time. “If your teenager has trouble falling asleep, consider helping them find a relaxation technique like meditation, listening to relaxing music or an audiobook.”

Lunchtime dilemmas

Ask any parent the best thing about the school summer holidays and a considerable number are likely to list “not having to make school lunches” near the top. There’s nothing quite as frustrating as lovingly preparing a healthy lunch for your little darling, only to have it arrive home again, just as it left.

Add into the equation relaxed summer holiday eating habits, and the prospect of finding school lunches the children might find remotely appetising seems like a bigger ask.

“The summer break can mean lazy summer breakfasts, lunch on the go and later dinners,” dietitian Sonja Lynch explains. “Hungry children can tend to snack or graze throughout the day. Likewise, holidays away can lead to more tasty, high-sugar foods and desserts. While ice creams on summer days and cake in nna’s house should be enjoyed without any feelings of guilt, it’s important for young children that they don’t fill up on these foods and aren’t hungry for more nutritious meals. Fruit and vegetables can often be the first food to fall by the wayside.”

School lunchtime can be a very rushed affair, particularly in primary school, Lynch says. “Therefore, it’s important to provide them with a balanced lunchbox or foods that they will actually eat and enjoy. Instagram-worthy lunchboxes filled with foods your child doesn’t actually enjoy eating will inevitably just end up making the return journey home. Focus instead on foods that are easy to eat quickly, with little effort – peel and chop fruits into large pieces, sandwiches that can be eaten one-handed.”

School lunches are not the time to introduce new or disliked foods, she says. “There are plenty more opportunities for eating at home in a more relaxed and less rushed environment.”

Lynch suggests using the time between now and the return to school to have a conversation with your child about lunch ideas. “Go to the supermarket and look at a variety of different breads they could bring, for example, wraps, pitta pockets, crackers, soda bread, bagels. It’s better to get used to these foods at home before including them in their school lunch. Discuss what foods their friends bring to school – they might surprise you with the sandwich fillings or fruits or vegetables you hadn’t considered yourself.

“While it’s perfectly fine to have the same sandwich every day, do try to vary it a little in the type of bread, spread or sandwich. Otherwise boredom and taste fatigue will set in and the lunch will only be picked on. Children eat with their eyes, so aim to always include a bright, appealing coloured fruit or vegetable.”

Teens have more options when it comes to lunches, Lynch says, but this can bring its own problems. The “variety of choice and often peer pressure can result in them shunning homemade healthy lunchboxes for canteen foods, local takeaways or supermarket deli counters. These foods are not only more expensive but they also tend to be higher in salt, sugar and fat.”

Lynch suggests a compromise. “Maybe, aim to bring a packed lunch three times a week.” She also suggests that parents consider stocking their kitchen “with individually packed snack foods they can grab and throw in their schoolbags – cheese portions, yoghurt drinks, fresh and dried fruit, nuts and nut butters, crackers.”

For those of us with picky eaters, school lunches can prove particularly difficult. But Lynch cautions against making school lunches a battleground. “School lunches aren’t the time to become adventurous with food for picky eaters. Instead, try to include a carbohydrate they like, even if it’s just white slice pan, or crackers. Consider trying different types of bread at the weekend at home instead, and build up to including them in their lunch box. Try to include a source of protein – plain chicken, ham or cheese are often well-tolerated. Yoghurt can be a great option to include… Add in any fruit or vegetable they like.”

Don’t be too tough on yourself as a parent either, Lynch says. “An occasional lunch box with few cream crackers and jam and a box of raisins won’t impact your child’s longer-term health or academic performance.”

Cutting costs

“Don’t have children,” was the most common advice offered when I asked parents if they had any cost-cutting tips ahead of the new school year. Either we’re a nation of comedians or they have a point. Raising children is an expensive business and free education is anything but. The 2022 Barnados back-to-school survey highlighted that the majority of parents are worried about meeting back-to-school costs this year, and most will find it harder as a result of recent cost-of-living increases.

Making savings isn’t easy, particularly in the current climate, but there are a few ways to lessen the financial burden.

* A new school year does not necessarily require new schoolbags, pencil cases, lunch boxes or beakers. Check what you have first and see if they really need to be replaced. Along with saving yourself some unnecessary expense, it’s the more environmentally friendly thing to do.

Voluntary contributions are all too common, and vary hugely from school to school. But... the key word to observe here is ‘voluntary’

* If your school has a crested uniform, check to see what parts of it may be generic. Sometimes trousers, skirts or shirts can be purchased from outlets other than a specific uniform shop, which can lead to substantial savings.

* The school WhatsApp group is a great place to pass on uniform items that your child may have outgrown to those with younger children. It’s also the perfect place to offer and receive schoolbooks.

* If your children’s school is an iPad school, the waste can feel real if books are also required, as they frequently are. For children who have access to their older siblings’ physical books, it may not be necessary to purchase a book you already have again, in order to access the code for the accompanying ebook. Check first with the publisher to see if a new code can be assigned, at a far lesser cost.

* Voluntary contributions are all too common, and vary hugely from school to school. But regardless of the amount requested, the key word to observe here is “voluntary”. Though some parents report feeling an obligation to pay, it is completely optional.

* Watch out for special offers on stationery, books and copies. Shop around, and look online for discounts or services such as free delivery or book covering. And when it comes to removable book and copy covers, check how last year’s ones are holding up. Once again, it’s not just about saving money, it’s about saving the planet too.

* After-school activities are an often overlooked expense of back-to-school, but the costs quickly add up, particularly if you’ve more than one child. With that in mind, always ask about sibling discounts, which are not always advertised.

Jen Hogan

Jen Hogan

Jen Hogan, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health and family