It seems like, every August, my phone and email start to blow up with questions and concerns from overwhelmed parents dealing with out of control youngsters who have suddenly become a bit more quirky, twitchy, belligerent, anxious or dramatic, and they need to make it stop, NOW! The funny thing is, when I think about it, it's always right around the same time those parents begin the "count down" to back to school.
At first, I didn't see the correlation, mainly because I am what I like to refer too as a "Master Integrator" -- you know, one of those type A folks who can walk into a room of 100 people and instantly strike up a conversation?
I attribute this gift to two factors, first, as a work from home mom, I attack any opportunity at an adult conversation like a lion on a baby antelope. And second; because I was pretty much raised by a gypsy. As a child, my mother moved me 12 times , into eight different school districts, by the time I was 10 years old. As a result, I learned that making new friends and adapting to new environments was a necessity, not an option.
So when I finally realized that the temporary insanity I was experiencing in my clients was actually full out anxiety, I took a look at all the habits, actions and tools I used as a child and even now as a parent coach and mother, to tame the Back-to-School Freak Out.
1. Save the celebration for AFTER they get on the bus.
Little kids love fun and they love to see us happy, but when that happiness is tied directly to us "getting rid of them for the day," it hurts their feelings and quite frankly, it pisses them off. So although most of us are craving the return to predictable schedules, earlier bedtimes and fuller refrigerators...refrain from doing the happy dance in front of your kiddo for now, especially if the only reason you're doing it is to let them know how excited you are to be "free" of them for the next nine months.
2. Stop talking about earlier mornings/bedtimes as if it's a punishment.
If I had a dollar for every parent I've heard talking about "acclimating to waking up at the buttcrack of dawn" or taunting their kids with statements like "Just think! In 2 more weeks, you'd be in bed by now so you can get up at 6am!" I'd be a billionaire!
But the truth is, we tease them and taunt them and then we wonder why our kids flake on us the last few weeks of summer break? When we make the schedule into a punishment, kids will rebel and fight against it. It's what they do! So quit that. I know it feels really good to throw that jab in there when they're driving us nuts, but you're just feeding the monster and making it worse. So quit that. Which brings me to:
3. Schedule the fun!
Pick some cool stuff you can do over the remaining days/weeks of break that include getting up and going to bed earlier and learning something new during the day. Getting back into the swing of learning is always a great idea, but when we make it enjoyable, it puts a positive spin on the whole idea of going back to the classroom.
Another important thing to schedule is what your kiddo can expect during the school day. Many kids fear change, and thoughts like: "what if I come home and no one is there?" , "what if they forget to pick me up?", "what if the school forgets to feed me?" "what if I get locked in the school in the dark?" are very real concerns I have heard from children entering Kindergarten or a new school.
Show your child what their school schedule will look like. Print out a copy of the lunch menu, give them the name and number of a neighbor they can count on, remind them of the bus schedule. If you can come up with and write down a plan for each day/circumstance that is consistent and reliable, your child will feel a lot more safe, secure and in control.
5. Give them an "escape" plan.
Irrational fears are, well, irrational. And when a person has an irrational fear of something, the one thing that helps them to deal, is an escape plan. If your child has an irrational fear of the dark, being lost, spiders or even facial hair (true story) they need to know that there is a way they can reach you or someone they trust, to help them. Give your child a picture with your cell phone number on it to keep in their backpack, have them write a note to the teacher telling them what would help them calm down if they are scared, teach them a breathing technique, give them a "worry rock"...whatever works for you and your kiddo.
Chances are, just having the "tool" is enough security that they won't ever need to use it. But they need to know there is something they can do that they are in control of, so they don't wind up in a panic situation.
6. Stalk their Teachers.
Kiddos who are attending a new school experience a ton of anxiety over the new adults in their lives. We teach our kids from the time they can walk and talk, to beware of "Stranger Danger," yet we don't understand why they freak out when we send them into a new place with adults they don't know who are IN CHARGE of them. "What if they're mean? What if they try to hurt me, or steal me?" These are fears that run through our kiddos heads (mostly because we have put them there), so we need to take their teachers out of the Stranger Danger category.
Most schools have a website, explore it. Go to the teacher's page and snoop around. What are his/her interests? What are some things they want you to know about them? Are there pictures of the teachers that you can find in yearbooks or on-line? Have your child write down some questions to ask their new teacher and definitely, make sure you attend every possible "getting to know you" event that the school offers.
7. Remind them of past successes.
Moving into a new grade is as scary as starting a new job every nine months. Now imagine all you kept hearing about the new job is how much harder the work is and how much meaner the boss is and how much bigger and tougher the co-workers are...that would suck! Well, that's what our kiddos deal with every single year. So instead of focusing on the unknown newness, try focusing on what they have done so far that has prepared them for this next step. Brainstorm with them all the things they have succeeded at and the stuff they already know how to do. Celebrate their wins to build their confidence and remind them that they have been learning new stuff all their life, the beginning of a school year is simply a review of what they already know...and a fresh start to learning more stuff.
8. Build their circle of support.
For some kids, it's not easy to stay connected to classmates over summer break, so they tend to stress over their new classrooms as if they won't ever see their old buddies again, or maybe they are attending a new school and they really won't see their old buddies again...so why not get together with some classmates before school starts?
Plan a get together, a play date, an ice cream social, whatever. Just help your child to
build their circle of friends that they can connect and buddy up with in class so they don't feel left out or alone.
9. Start a tradition.
Take a trip to the local amusement park. Hold a Desert for Dinner party. Make a Family Movie, Take those goofy posed pictures with placards, skip all the way to the bus....all are great ideas for traditions some of my clients have started to celebrate the first day of school. When kids have something fun, special and consistent to count on, they focus less on the nerves because it ads a sense of normalcy.
So start a FUN back-to-school tradition. Who knows, it may even continue to the grandkids.
10. Tell stories about how other people in the school might be feeling.
Your child isn't the only one who is nervous, excited or even scared! Telling or making up stories about how some other students may be feeling, what the teachers may be doing to prepare their new classroom, or how other parents may be dealing with their kiddos going off to school for the first time, helps children build empathy and it shows them that they are not alone in their feelings/thoughts and concerns. Plus, including the thoughts of pets or baby siblings is always good for a laugh.
One "don't" in this category is The Guilt Trip. Although it's important for kids to understand our emotions, telling our little ones how sad we'll be, how we've been dreading this day since they were born and the detail of how we will cry all day long and not be able to function...yeah, that doesn't help anyone.
So tell the stories, just not the ones about your kid being the cause of your daily depression.
11. Go Shopping.
Is there a theme or subject your kid is totally bananas over? Then make a list together of all the things they will need for school and go on a shopping scavenger hunt (or a crafting spree) to find or create as much stuff in that theme as you can. Jazz up a backpack, bling out a binder, camouflage their gym bag...whatever will make their tools for school their own and gives them a sense of ownership and pride.
And it's really great together time!...I mean, who doesn't love to shop?!
12. Assure them that going to "big kid" school doesn't mean you want them to change.
If this is your child's first experience with school and all they hear you say is "You have to do "this" before you go to big girl school" or "You will need to stop doing "that" before you go to big boy school." Your child will begin to fear and/or resent going to "big kid school," quite simply because they are not sure enough or in control enough to guarantee those habits will be gone or those skills will be mastered by the deadline you have set for them...and then what? Will I be punished? Will you be disappointed in me? Will I get in trouble? Will people make fun of me? ...Will I not be your baby anymore?
Children do not have the reasoning skills to predict what will happen in the future. They are really new at this whole "growing up thing" and being told that they must give up or learn something by a specific time frame which they could really care less about meeting, is very stressful. So it's important to remind your child that you are not expecting them to change and that being a big boy or girl doesn't mean that you will treat them any differently. They have enough to stress over...if the whole "big kid" conversation is wigging them out, it's ok to drop that terminology for now and just let them grow into being a student.
13. Finally, most importantly...just listen to them!
When kids are scared, concerned, unsure or feel out of control...they lose it. It's all they know how to do. But when our kids "lose it," it often looks like regressive behaviors, temper tantrums, defiance and downright brattiness -- rather than the sophisticated ways in which we as adults lose it. But regardless of what it looks like, both kids and adults are best handled in the same way -- by just listening to them.
Walks by the new school, playing games, redecorating bedrooms, and many of the suggestions above, all give us opportunities to communicate, in a relaxed setting and to validate and ease their concerns. Once you know what the things are that are bugging your kiddo, you can squash those bugs by telling stories from your own experiences where you went through the same thing and lived to tell about it.
When you really hear your kids and know what is making them lose their mind, it puts you in the perfect position to ask your child these simple yet game changing words: "What would you like to do about that?"