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Stress and Returning to Campus

Going back to school can be a traumatic event for family members and the family as a whole, not just the student.

As working mothers are becoming an increasing percentage of the working force, there is also a substantial increase in the number of parents of both sexes who are now enrolling in formal education. This situation can cause problems at home but with some forethought and planning, can also be a positive experience for the other family members.

The National Household Evaluation Survey which was conducted in April 1991, determined that 44 percent of parents of children under 16 are enrolled in some form of formal education. Four percent of these parents reported that they were full-time students. This changing picture of parenthood has the potential for positive change, or personal disaster — depending on the planning, openness, and nature of the family structure as it existed before the parent went back to school. Positive outcomes with this situation can be planned.

Stress on the family unit of a student parent who works generally falls into three categories:

  • resistance from the children
  • resistance from the spouse
  • stress on the family as a unit.

The children of a student parent who works often feel that they are “losing” their parent, usually because there is less time available for the child. This anxiety in children is similar to the stress children experience when their mother first goes back to work. Just as in this experience, the student parent can simply respond to the situation and deal with the problems and upheavals as they arise, or he or she can plan for success, using several simple, common sense procedures:

1. Discuss the situation with the child. Explain why you are going to school, how long it will take, and how this will affect him or her.

2. Make a point of drawing up a schedule with your child. A simple technique is to keep a calendar on the refrigerator. A child who is old enough to write can put in his or her own important dates (e.g.,when they’ll need cookies for the class picnic or the school play). Make a deal with your child that you will honor those commitments and do so. Schedule your study and school work time as much as possible around those events which are absolutely crucial to your child. Have him or her write those in red ink or star them so you will know what is essential. Children (and spouses) are always concerned about how this change is going to affect them. After all, children are only human and tend to see things from their perspective.

3. You need to show as well as explain the following to your child (and spouse):

  • getting an education is important to you,
  • an education is not going to change the essential you (a common fear of spouses), it is just going to make you better,
  • getting an education is not MORE important than your family but you do a good job with both.

Involve your family in the educational projects. Even a small child can work next to you, drawing a picture of whatever you are attempting to study. Older children can quiz you on fact cards or look up words or material in the encyclopedia for you. Your spouse could pick up a library book or discuss term paper projects with you. Try to present your educational efforts as a family effort rather than your endeavor only. Communication will increase your chances of getting your family to “buy into” your educational goals. Your spouse or child can be sabotaging your educational plans without being aware that they are doing so.

It is both common and to be expected that the family will need extra attention just at the most busy academic times (e.g., when you are studying for an exam or when you are attempting to meet a deadline for a term paper). In the functional family, this is just the normal expression of the family’s dependence upon you, and is actually a subtle compliment. While it is difficult for the student to see this in perspective and not feel persecuted and stressed out, the same techniques of explaining your schedule and making time for the other family members should help you through the tough times. Use behavior modification techniques for constant interruptions; don’t pay attention to the interruptions, but schedule quality time for planned interactions and, during these times, give your full attention to the family member.

REMEMBER: Failure to communicate is the most frequent cause of family stress when a parent returns to school. The positive experience of seeing a parent as a successful student, however, is a very powerful role model. Working together with your child and/or spouse will teach them, and you, valuable work and study habits.