It creeps up on us slowly; almost imperceptibly… the sun sets earlier and rises later. Nights are cooling off and shadows are lengthening. Farmers’ markets are overflowing with abundant corn crops. It’s time for the annual Perseid meteor shower (next year I vow I’ll watch it far away from Toronto’s light pollution!). Summer here in Canada is over halfway over & the last few weeks will disappear in a blink.
To add insult to injury, the catalogues start arriving daily. L.L.Bean, Land’s End, and Hanna Anderson taunt me with reminders that another summer has nearly passed and its time for back to school. Some of my friends and clients south of the border have already sent their kids back to school (how are y’all doin’?!).
For junior kids, shopping for new shoes, backpacks, and lunch bags is great fun. For senior kids and middle schoolers, hitting the aisles of Staples for binders and pencil crayons, fresh notebooks and supplies is a giddy thrill. But for some kids, this is when the anxiety begins to creep in. Their little minds become burdened playing “what if”:
What if my teacher is mean?
What if I have no one to play with at recess?
What if my teacher is a yeller?
What if I can’t keep up in class?
Here’s three simple guidelines for supporting your child through the “what ifs” or when the “what ifs” come to pass.
1. Treat their concerns seriously
It takes courage – for all of us – to admit when something is worrying or creating anxiety. Sometimes even just saying The Thing that’s bothering us out loud can make it scarier, it makes it real. This is your cue to slow down and really listen. Open up a conversation about the subject, or set aside some time to discuss it.
2. Don’t jump to reassurance
“Huh? My kid is struggling and you DON’T want me to reassure them?!”. Exactly. Even though our first instinct as parents is to soothe our children and make them feel better, first we need to give them the time and space to explore the worry. Although responding with a warm and kind, “Oh don’t be silly” or “That would never happen” may be intended to reassure, it actually minimizes their concern and makes them less likely to confide in you. Ask some questions, “Hmmm… where do you think that idea came from?”. “Has something like that happened before?”. “How do you feel when you think about that?”. After some gentle dialogue, you can offer the reassurance of a plan to help manage the worrying situation.
3. Create a Plan Together
Even though you may be doubtful that the scenario your child fears will come to pass, it is reassuring for them to have a plan of action. Working collaboratively is vital so they feel some power and agency in the strategy. You can suggest, “Let’s sit down together tonight and we’ll think of some ways to solve this”. If your child can't come up with any potential solutions at first, parents can get the ball rolling with some serious and some silly solutions: “How about telling Maria at morning carpet time that you’d like to play with her at recess?”, “What if we make you a crown and a cape and demand that all of the children play with you at recess?”. Tap into your child’s creative imagination for fantastical fantasy solutions, or explore what has worked in the past.
Experiencing anxiety around new situations or transitions is completely normal. With empathy, patience, and humor you’ll be well able to support your child in their return to school. Building resilience and learning these life skills early on will outlast the flashy new backpack.
Stay tuned next week for Back to School Part II– Support for Mammas (school lunches, morning routines, and other ways we make ourselves feel crazed).