The new school year has begun. Perhaps not everyone sees this as cause for celebration. I remember clearly how my children and I resisted summer vacation ending, with the transition into a new school year. I cherished that magical stretch of summertime, when I could be around my children more — playing, exploring, swimming, simply hanging out together. It’s now the time for separation, which for some is easy while, for others, it may be quite traumatic, a time for parents to pay close attention to any signs that our children may need our help. Preparing children adequately for any major transition is challenging, requiring patience and understanding. For those who struggle with change, our best preparations don’t always work the way we hope. We might lack the confidence to know what’s the right thing to do. Other important life changes could also be affecting a child, such as transitioning to a new school or a new home, adjusting to their parents’ divorce, or a sibling leaving home for college or a new job. Children starting kindergarten or entering middle or high school and those going off to college for the first time are all under increased stress.

Families are now resuming a more demanding pace. This can trigger anxiety in some children, and certainly for some parents. Adequate preparation for your child entering a new stage of independence is very important. Some children easily warm up to new environments and schedule changes. For others, as with at least one of my own children, it brings resistance. It’s helpful to limit outside activities during the initial adjustment period. Facing the challenges of school is easier if a child is encouraged to do more for himself at home. Stay connected with the school to mutually share information, providing helpful insight to the teacher. Children have different strides, developing and maturing on variable time lines. What one child masters may not be what another child does at the same time. How your child learns will be different from other children’s respective abilities. You know your child better than anyone. It’s your job to advocate for him.

Developmental considerations, temperamental differences, previous experiences, and family dynamics are all important factors in our assessment. Pay attention to how much the pain of separation with your child resonates with your own childhood experiences. This can be as important to your child’s school adjustment as her own readiness. We may have concerns about our child’s acceptance with his peers, how successful social interactions will be. For some children, the resistance to resuming school is genuine, with deep feelings of angst, disenchantment, or the anticipation of facing overwhelming obstacles just to get through the day. Learning should be fun and exciting, with each new school day an adventure in growth and discovery. Measuring children’s progress through standardized tests and grades can undermine the joy of academic exploration and self-awareness. Time to explore, with a love of learning, needs to be an integral part of a child’s day.

Some children seemingly cope well at first, later experiencing a delayed reaction to school expectations. For young children, there could be some developmental regression: more clinging, louder protests, sleep disturbances/bad dreams, thumb sucking, whining/crying, wetting or soiling, eating problems, and/or bedtime difficulties. These symptoms are indications of our child’s stress, while she’s learning to cope with these new feelings, although this regression is normal. Our job is to let our child know that we will support him through this process, and that he’ll again be in control, able to let go of the regressive behaviors. We should expect the occasional resistance to leaving home/going to school. However, if your child continues showing distress, it’s critical to speak with her teacher, exploring possible causes and collaborating on how to address the struggles. If it feels like the adjustment time is protracted or disproportionate, trust your instincts. Consider consulting with a professional for guidance and support.

Children can be their best when we set our expectations realistically for success, when we hear and understand what their behavior is really telling us, and when they feel unconditionally accepted, connected, and cared for. The early years of education provide the formative stage for shaping a child’s future, determining whether he’s tuned in or turned off. Watch your child’s cues, based on his temperament (if he’s slow to warm up, has a high activity level, or difficulty with change, these factors are important to consider). Allow her to guide you through her cognitive and emotional process. View the experience through her lens.

Every child or adolescent expresses anxiety very differently. We need to “hear” the feelings, watching for signs he isn’t coping well. By connecting to his needs, addressing ways to ease the problem, you can support him through the challenges. Ask her what would be helpful, while maintaining a calm, predictable routine. Discuss his temperament in positive terms, framing his adjustment as the special way he approaches new situations, helping him through the hurdles with minimal impact. Find out what works best, what inner strengths he can draw from, always maintaining a positive framework in which your child views himself. Connecting to the emotional root of any protracted difficulty is important. For the more spirited child, school may initially represent an environment with too many new situations, distractions. His ambivalence about leaving home for school may surface in ways that create disruption in his family, such as irritability, increased activity, loud reactions, withdrawal, sleep disturbance, lack of cooperation, and conflicts with siblings. The anticipation is mixed: excitement about moving into this new level of independence and adventure, while letting go of the security of home.

Middle or high school students may also feel insecure. Listening for distress, while offering understanding and acceptance, provides necessary support. The separation your child experiences when beginning college can be difficult as well. College students will still need their parents, just in different ways. Engage in brainstorming with them to establish a helpful, caring balance of support, respecting the boundaries of their evolving autonomy. These transitions are your children’s developmental milestones, their rites of passage. How you navigate through these milestones will be your connection to the past, as well as your preparation for the future.

“Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” — A.A. Milne