If your child is starting school for the first time, or starting in a new school or with a new teacher, they might be feeling a bit worried right now. Here are some ideas to make the transition easier (for both of you!)
If your child is anxious, talk about it.
Ask them what their concerns are and really listen. Listen and empathize. Don’t try to talk them out of their feelings. We try so hard to reassure our children when they are anxious, but it often doesn’t work. According to Larry Cohen, author of The Opposite of Worry, if reassurance hasn’t worked in 15 seconds, it’s not going to.
Why not? When anxious, a child’s brain is an “alarmed” state: being governed by what Dan Siegel, author of The Whole Brain Child, calls the primitive ‘downstairs brain.’ Your ‘upstairs brain’ (logical reassurance) won’t get through to your child when they are anxious.
Skip the reassurance; help your child out of their anxious state.
“Mom, I’m going to miss you, I’m not going to know ANYONE, and no one is going to play with me on the playground.”
Don’t say: “Sweetie, you’ll be fine! I’m sure you’ll meet some really nice kids. Of course they will want to play with you!”
Trying to talk someone out of their feelings NEVER works.
What to do instead: Acknowledge their fears and empathize. Normalize their feelings. Connect and comfort and welcome all emotion. Finally, help them make a plan.
Here’s what this looks like in practice:
Acknowledge and empathize: “Wow. Sounds like you’re really worried, sweetie. You’re worried you’re going to miss me and you won’t know anyone. You wish I could stay with you and that some kids you knew were going to be there. It might be hard to say goodbye to me and meet new friends. I understand, sweetie.”
Your empathy soothes your child and helps them process their feelings. Your soothing makes the feelings not so overwhelming. You’re not agreeing that they SHOULD be worried, you’re acknowledging the feelings they are actually having. The bonus is that every time you do this with your child, you are building their emotional resilience. You are helping them develop the pathways in their brain that will allow them to get through and recover after difficult emotions.
Normalize: “That’s totally normal! Everyone gets worried when they are doing something new. When I was your age I ALWAYS felt nervous before the first day of school.”
Connect: Give your child a big hug and welcome all their feelings. They might feel better at this point because they feel heard and understood.
They might still feel really worried. If they do, they might need to cry. That’s great!
Crying not only helps us process our emotions and heal, but it changes the body’s chemistry. Stress hormones such as cortisol are released through our tears. If your child is resistant to crying? Really get soft and compassionate. When we really put ourselves in our child’s shoes and empathize, they feel safe enough to cry.
Make a Plan: Often when children are able to process their feelings, they will move into problem solving mode on their own. If they don’t, you can say: “I wonder what might help…” If they can’t think of anything, you can suggest:
“Let’s put a picture of us together in your backpack and, if you are ever missing me, you can look at it and know I am thinking of you and we’ll see each other soon.”;
“Let’s wear matching bracelets so we know we’ll be together in spirit.”; or
“Let’s practice introducing ourselves to new people.”
Make sure you’re not rushing into this step to make your child feel better. You can’t skip the first steps or it doesn’t work.
Let your child know that even though they are scared, you know they can do this!
You can also remind your child of times when they have been successful in similar situations. For example:
“Remember when you stayed at Grandma’s and you really missed me, but then we saw each other the next day? You were okay! You managed!”; or
“Remember this summer when you went to swimming lessons and you didn’t know anyone, but then you made friends with Michael?”
If your child’s fears are irrational, ask: “Is that realistic or is that what your worry brain is saying?”
When you ask a child this question, it forces the more rational part of their brain to come out to answer the question, but it only works if your child is the one who answers!
Teach your child to hear what worry says, but that they don’t have to listen and act on every message that comes their way! (Like you would ignore junk mail or a telemarketer!)
If your child is still anxious or if they have a tendency toward anxiety in general, get laughing!
Laughter releases dopamine and endorphins into the body. Dopamine makes us feel good and endorphins are powerful stress fighters. Regular laughter can ‘take the edge off’ for your anxious child and significantly decrease their anxiety. With laughter, you can actually change your child’s body chemistry.
Spend 15 minutes, twice a day, getting your child laughing. Put it on your to-do list. Not only will you help them with their anxiety, you will be connecting and having so much fun together. Not sure where to get started? Do a quick Google search for ‘roughhousing ideas.’
You can help your child feel confident about starting school!
Listen to their concerns. Acknowledge their fears and empathize. Normalize their feelings. Connect and comfort, and welcome all emotion. Help them problem solve and remind them of past successes.