It’s that time of year again; the time of year where summer ends, and kids are going back to school. I find that this time of year brings one of two primary reactions from parents:
“Hallelujah! They’re back in school and I can finally get things done around the house or at work again!”
“Oh no, my babies are gone back to school! Are they going to be ok? How are they going to survive? What if they [insert any number of parental fears here]….”
Sometimes I wonder who has more anxiety during the return to school period – the kids, or the parents? Counselling for children during this time period can be very helpful, as can counselling for parents. What else is helpful as we prepare our kids for school?
One thing that’s clear, both in my personal experience (clinically, and with my own kids) is that our own emotional climate has a great effect on our kids’ emotional well-being as they return to school. If we are feeling anxious, chances are they’re going to pick up on it and join the anxiety party. If we’re calm, they may not join that party, but at least we’ll be in a position to help.
I get it. I hear your fears and anxieties as parents of young children. It’s normal to be anxious about this time of the year. So, what can we do to help our kids during this important transition? I’d like to offer four questions that we can ask our kids to open a conversation with them as they go back to school. I believe this dialogue will not only help their anxiety (which it will), but it will also build up the reservoir of empathy that is so needed, and strengthen your relationship with them.
1. How are you feeling about going back to school?
What is your greatest fear, and what are you most excited about? With this question, we’re inviting our children to share their emotional world with us, and at the same time, we’re making it explicit that it’s ok to have fears and it’s ok to be excited. We’re also introducing the idea that it’s possible to have both excitement and fear all at the same time! The psychobabble word for this validation.
By validating their excitement and their fears, we’re helping them feel known, accepted, and heard. This is the very basis of empathy, the greatest antidote to stress and existential anxiety. It’s the greatest tool we have with our children and their fight against their anxiety.
2. How do you feel when you’re in school?
What helps you enjoy the great parts and manage the hard parts? This question helps our child explore how they are doing during the school day when we’re not there. Research out of Yale University shows the importance of helping children have a “mood meter” throughout the day at school. It helps them understand their world as well as regulate their emotions. While specific techniques to manage mood are great, their research shows that simply paying attention to our emotions in a validating environment produces emotional benefits and helps students manage their emotions better in school and at home, all while reducing overall stress.
3. How do you feel during recess and lunch?
What are you looking forward to, and what might be more difficult? This question is a sneaky one. This is how we find out about their relationships at school and how they are doing with their peers. I don’t know about you, but if I ask my kids directly, “How are your relationships with your friends,” I’ll invariably receive an answer along the lines of, “Fine.” Or sometimes it’s, “I don’t know,” and finally, if I’m really lucky, I just get, “Dad! Stop butting in!”
If, however, we ask our kids how they are feeling during the times where they’re interacting socially with their peers, we’ll get a glimpse into their relationships. If they’re connecting well with other students we’ll likely get positive reports; if not, we might hear things like, “I’m bored,” or, “I’m lonely,” or, “I hate lunch.” This provides us with an opportunity to ask further questions, but now with a reason that the child has provided themselves. We can ask, “Wow, I’m sorry to hear you hate lunch and I’m curious what it is about lunch that isn’t going well?”
Sometimes, no matter how we ask, our children may not tell us what’s going on. If that’s the case, we can still get a win. Even if we can’t address that problem directly, at least we can provide empathy. If all else fails, we can still respond with, “Wow, I’m sorry to hear you’re having a tough time at lunch. I’m not sure how I can help, but I’m glad you told me.”
4. How do you feel when you get home?
What do you need after a day at school? This final question gives us a window into what our kids need after a long day of school, and believe me, the school day is long for our kids. Each kid is unique, however, and their needs after a day of school are wide and varied. Some kids need to run, some need a nap, some need a hug, some need…well, we’re not sure what. This is our chance to give our kids the opportunity to tell us what they need so we can help them get their need met.
It also provides us with a unique opportunity to connect in a meaningful way with our kids after their day and show that we’re interested in their world. It keeps us from simply yelling, “Don’t drop your jacket on the floor! Put your bag away! Take your shoes off, etc., etc.,” as our main way of connecting when they get in the door.
As parents, we can’t fix everything for our kids. We can’t solve all of their problems, but in this one question, we can at least begin to learn what they need after school so that we can help meet that need. If we can do this, we’ll help reduce their stress, which has many, many benefits for the kids.
It also has the net benefit that if we reduce their stress, give them opportunities to connect, our time with them will be less stressful, and they may actually be less likely to fling their backpacks across the room in frustration as soon as they open the door after school.
Our greatest job as parents
I hope this article is helpful as we all prepare for next week and the return to school. We all love our kids and we often feel like our job is to fix everything. I want to encourage us to focus on accepting our child’s answers to these questions and not let our own anxiety put us into “make it better mode.” If we fall prey to this, we do the opposite of what our kids need. Our kids need validation and empathy. The great thing is that in order to do this, all we need to do is listen and be with our kids. We don’t have to make it all better, because most of the time, the reality is that we can’t.
Need some help?
Parenting is tough, and this is a tough time of the year for everyone involved. If we can be of any help, please give us a call. This is the time of year is when counselling for children can be extremely helpful. We have a team of counsellors who love working with parents and kids and we’d love to be a resource for you.