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School stress: Exploring 1,000 parents' perceptions of the school season

Kali in Waltham, MA
Oct. 23, 2018

Parents tend to get overlooked when it comes to the impact of a hectic school schedule. The reality is that parents are usually the ones responsible for driving kids to school, taking vacation days when someone gets sick, managing after-school activities, buying school supplies and saving for college.

Playing all of these roles is no joke. In fact, one psychologist confirms that it's normal for parents to experience some level of back-to-school anxiety.

To learn more about the catalysts behind parents’ stresswe surveyed 1,000 parents about their experiences preparing for the school year. We learned what affects them the most and how they handle all the craziness that comes along with another year of classes. To understand the often-unexplored side of the school season, keep reading.

Homework and lunches and traffic, oh my!

top stressors for parents during the school season - Care.com

When school's gearing up, the stress of upcoming changes can impact both students and their parents. However, while students may stress about whom to sit with at lunch, parents might feel it in different ways.

We asked parents what most stressed them out during the back-to-school season. Moms and dads both agreed getting their kids up early for school was the most stressful part of the new school year. They also stressed about school traffic. It's not breaking news that morning routines are tough for parents. Child psychology expert Dr. David Anderson explains that mornings can be "the perfect storm" of a million things to do in a short time.

Parents weren't only stressed out about mornings, though. The second biggest stressor was thinking about spending money on school supplies. About 65 percent of moms and 55 percent of dads said this contributed to their worry. Evidently, when it comes to money, the financial pressure from the school year sets in before the first class even starts.

The More The Messier

Stress by number of kids during school season - Care.com

By some estimations, certain parts of parenting are supposed to get easier the second time around. Even though you can’t expect everything to go perfectly, second-timers are typically less focused on planning out every second of their days and recognize that doing everything “right” is more of a pipe-dream than reality.

But even if having your second (or third or fourth) child may make some elements of parenting feel more familiar, more isn’t always merrier when it comes to the school season. With nearly 23 percent of single-child parents claiming utter relaxation as they prepared for the start of school and another 23 percent sitting firmly in the middle, just 55 percent of parents with one kid identified as stressed out by their kid’s educations. In contrast, parents with two kids were 13 percent more likely to be frazzled out by the school year than parents with just one child, and parents with three kids were almost 23 percent more likely to feel the same stress.

At most, moms and dad might be able to expect things to calm down and smooth out by the time they hit their fourth child. While they might not be as relaxed (13.5 percent ) as parents with one child to take care off, they were less likely than anyone to feel completely on edge, either (53.8 percent).   

Extra engagement

Extracurricular exhaustion - Care.com

There are a lot of moving parts during the school year, and parents usually end up juggling a ton of after-school activities. What feels like overscheduling to a parent might be just the right schedule for kids, as they tend to thrive on extracurriculars.

The majority of parents definitely aren't enrolling their kids in extracurriculars for selfish reasons, however, as roughly 60 percent of surveyed parents were even further stressed by after-school activities. Respondents enrolled their kids in extracurriculars to keep them active, happy or involved in something they liked. Even though it's just another thing to manage for parents, they likely know the benefits are worth the headache.

How kids get to school - Care.com

There are no two ways about it; managing a child's transportation schedule is stressful. And while trying to coordinate school schedules, extra-curricular activities, and weekend adventures can take the wind out of your sails, it can also start to feel like you don't have a plethora of options, either.

When you only have one child that needs to be chauffeured around town, driving them into school yourself might be a bit easier. More than anyone else, it was single-child parents (58.8 percent) who drove their children into school rather than taking the bus or walking. Parents with more kids might not always have that luxury, though. Less likely to walk, children with siblings were more likely to either bike into school or take the bus, including more than 30 percent of families with three children and 47 percent with four. While this shift may be partly owed to somewhat older children or less concern over safety precautions, one study found parents also worry about their own job securitywhen they have to take time off work to drive their kids around during the school year.

Sacrifices for school

parents' sacrifices for school - Care.com

Whether it's because of an illness or a planned school event, parents end up sacrificing their work time and downtime during their child's school year.

While they might seem like small chunks of time here and there, nursing kids' 12-hour colds can add up. Respondents left work to pick up their children an average of 6.3 times per year. Parents with a flexible job or forgiving bosses may be able to swing that kind of time off, but not everyone's that lucky. About one-third of parents reported that they don't get enough paid time off to care for their sick kids, according to a poll by the University of Michigan Mott Children's Hospital. As parents' PTO dwindles down, it's yet another thing for them to worry about.

As every parent knows, their personal time can also often be in demand. Whether it's for open houses or opening nights of the school play, parents attend their child's school events 9.1 times a year, on average. Suffice to say, it's helpful to keep a flexible after-school mindset once the school year gets in full swing and things pop up unexpectedly.

Educational expenses

Average annual amount spent per child on school supplies by school level - Care.com

The second biggest stressor for parents regarding the back-to-school season was thinking about the cost of school supplies.

Data from our survey showed that parents spent $219 on a single child in elementary school, the most expensive school level in terms of supply shopping. Day care and preschool were second, with an average of $184 spent per child. Once kids reached middle school and high school, prices dropped. While the going may be tough during the first decade or so, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Learning in the long term

planning ahead for children going to college - Care.com

As kids grow up, the countdown to college seems to come quickly. It's not a surprise that parents in our survey were the most stressed about college once their kids got to high school. College costs have risen dramatically, and the costs are being passed onto children via historically high levels of student loan debt.

Parents were more relaxed about college while their children were young, being the most at ease when their kids were in day care and preschool. Still, nearly 50 percent reported stress at this point.

Relaxation dwindled as years went on, though, with 54 percent or more of respondents stressed about college once their kids reached elementary school and beyond.

As children age, their college funds typically grow with them. Even though parents have expenses like the cost of child care, bills and groceries, many still find pennies to pinch for the sake of that college degree.

Saving for college is at an all-time high right now, especially for millennial parents, according to Fidelity Investments' College Savings Indicator study. Fidelity found that millennial parents are influenced by their own experiences with student debt and are committed to saving to reduce their kids' potential debt.

With that debt on their mind, parents are continuously adding to college funds as their children get older. Funds steadily increased as kids went through the grades, with an average of $12,528 saved for a single child by the time they were in high school. Considering the College Board's estimate that the average cost of a year of public in-state tuition is nearly $10,000, that college fund might not go very far. It's no wonder parental stress levels increased as they inched closer to the first tuition payment.

School year strategies

how parents keep calm during the school year - Care.com

The endless checkout lines at supply stores, the expenses poured into school supplies, and the new schedules to manage are all a part of the stress bubble. With all this at play, it's crucial for parents to find a way to relax.

When we asked our respondents how they remained cool, calm, and collected, we received a variety of responses from handling things proactively to shifting responsibility to the kids.

Several parents mentioned an assertive approach like planning for the week ahead or getting things ready for each hectic morning the night before. Others preferred delegating homework and lunch responsibilities to the kids, giving them a sense of duty and taking some pressure off the parent.

One parent said how important it was to keep in mind that they've dealt with more stressful things before, and they've always made it through.

Keeping open communication was also important to respondents. Parents emphasized staying engaged in their kids' lives and keeping weekends for family connection or fun activities.

School stress for students and parents alike

Through this study, we saw just how stressful the back-to-school season can be for parents. It affects them throughout the days and weighs on their mind over the years.

The potential for stress doesn't end with parents getting children up and out the door: It also follows them to the workplace. At the office, they may face the possibility of using a vacation day for a sick kid or hustling home early with a school event looming in their minds. And once they make it through the school day, they have to manage the hectic schedule of after-school activities.

Beyond the day-to-day, parents also have big-picture worries like finances. Whether it's budgeting to cover school supplies or trying to work out a college savings plan, money is always on their mind.

From financial security to the daily grind, parents have a lot of stress. To deal with this, they have to find ways to adapt and cope in a healthy way.

If you're overwhelmed with responsibility, sometimes asking for help is the right way to go. At Care.com, you can search for experienced child care for those times when you can't do it all. We can also help you find affordable housekeepers, tutors, dog walkers and more. Don't let a little stress keep you from being the best parent you can be.

Methodology and limitations

Using Amazon's Mechanical Turk service, we ran a survey of 1,000 parents about the back-to-school season and all the stress that comes with dealing with it. Of these parents, 625 identified as female, 371 identified as male and four identified as neither.

The data we are presenting in this study rely on self-reporting, and there can be a lot of issues with self-reported data. These issues can include (but aren't limited to) things like: selective memory, telescoping, attribution and exaggeration.

Sources

Fair use statement

It's not uncommon to be feeling the back-to-school blues, so if you'd like to share anything from this study, please feel free (if it's for non-commercial use)! But play nice and link back to this page so that our contributors can get credit for their hard work.

Read next: 5 tips for less back-to-school stress

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