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Starting a New School Year? How to Manage the Everyday Chaos

Starting a new school year is, in many ways, starting with a clean slate—a chance for teens to try a new activity, work harder at a particular subject, make new friends, or debut a new hairstyle. But, for parents, it’s also a chance to push the “reset” button—an opportunity to take stock of unhelpful family habits, or encourage a new approach to things like screen time, homework, and schedules.

New School year

Patricia Fuentes Burns pushed “reset” with her three daughters last September. With the girls at different stages of development—ages 14, 11, and 7—it was all too easy for divergent schedules to lead to disorganization, stress, and arguments.

“I find my kids are forever asking me what is happening on any given day,” Fuentes Burns says. “It seems to cause a lot of anxiety and confusion when they aren’t sure what’s happening. So, at the start of last year, every Friday I’d put together a seven-day schedule to post on the fridge. It included details about all the events, activities, school deadlines for the family, and my teenager’s babysitting gigs.”

The Arlington, Virginia, mom reports that the girls quickly adapted to the new routine of checking the schedule and adding to it as necessary. “I think it made them feel secure and more in control,” Fuentes Burns says, “and it was a good way to gauge if we were getting too busy and needed to build in some downtime.”

New Routines

Fuentes Burns also made other key routine changes, such as implementing a “snack-first” rule after school so that the girls weren’t in and out of the refrigerator all afternoon, and using an app that set time limits on everyone’s devices. “They learned to be intentional about their device use and save up time if they wanted to watch a show, play a game, or video-chat with friends,” she says.

It can be challenging, however, to get teens to change long-established routines. If they’re used to unlimited screen time, new limits will feel like a deprivation. If they like to roll out of bed at the last minute, getting up earlier (especially as the winter months approach) might take some getting used to. We talked to some experts who offered advice about how to get teens on board with a new routine so they can stick with it.

1. Talk about it first

It might seem obvious, but it’s essential that you sit down with your teens and talk about why you want to start a new routine or implement a change, says Catherine Peterson, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist from Alexandria, Virginia. “The new school year is a perfect time for parents to evaluate the family system and find ways to do things in a new, fresh way,” Peterson says, adding that her comments should not replace professional medical, legal, or therapeutic advice. “The first step is to ask questions. If the child expressed a desire for something to be different, be curious about that. Then help brainstorm and problem-solve.”

Peterson suggests not waiting until the night before the first day of school to make any changes, but to get the conversation going about three or four weeks in advance, if possible.

2. Be specific about goals

Just telling your teen to do something different—whether it’s using electronics less or completing their homework on time—is often too vague to result in lasting change. Teens are much more likely to adopt a new routine if parents give them concrete steps for new school year goals, says Lisa Podell, founder of the New York coaching firm Better Sessions. “Instead of saying, ‘You’re expected to clean your room each morning,’ say, ‘Let’s come up with three tasks you can do in your room to make it look presentable,’” says Podell. This could be, for example, picking up five items off their desk or floor or hanging up any clothing that’s on the closet floor.

3. Offer some choices

Being dogmatic with teens can often backfire. Instead, give your teen some choices, says Amy Morin, a Maine psychotherapist and author of 13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do. “Ask questions like ‘Would you rather take your shower before bed or in the morning?’ and give your teen the chance to take some responsibility.”

4. Do it together

It’s not always possible, but implementing a new routine is much easier when the whole family participates, so there’s reinforcement and accountability. “I do find it’s so much easier to implement new rules and systems if everyone is on board, so I try to do the same thing I’m asking of my kids,” Fuentes Burns says. “For example, because I work from home I tend to snack all the time. But with the new snacking routine, I wait so I can enjoy the moment and food with the girls.”

Peterson agrees. “Any behavior that a parent wants to see in a child, they should be modeling themselves,” she says. “Otherwise, the children see the discrepancy immediately and they can become resentful.” Offering a family reward can also help if everyone can stick to the routine for a certain number of weeks, she adds. That incentive might be something like a special hike or an ice cream or movie outing.

5. Write it down

It can also be helpful for parents and teens to write down their new goals or routines in some communal area such as a chalkboard or bulletin board in the kitchen, as Fuentes Burns did with her weekly schedule. Some families might want to consider drawing up and signing a formal written contract, Peterson says, such as one governing cell phone or internet use.

Writing things down also takes the parent’s voice out of the equation. “Set your teen up for success,” says Amy Morin. “If your teen is forgetful, create a checklist of what he needs to pack for school. Then, rather than nag him to pack everything or doing the packing for him, simply ask if he’s gone through his checklist to make sure he has everything.”

Podell suggests keeping a written list of the successes that occur as your teen adopts new habits. “Seeing a visual of your tangible results provides proof as to why you want to engage in the practice,” she says.

Be compassionate and understanding if your teen backslides into undesirable habits—or if you do. This just means that it might be time for another family meeting (see sidebar) and more conversation. “Try not to criticize or shame your teen for falling off the train,” Peterson says. “Find some family time so you can stay on the same page and reinforce the infrastructure you’ve created. You can hold yourselves and your kids accountable, but in a gentle, loving way.”

Kim O’Connell

Kim O’Connell is a freelance writer and contributor to Your Teen.