Setting the Tone: 5 Back-to-School Tips for Parents

I can’t help noticing all the pictures and posts on social media, of kids going back to school. With their new outfits, new backpacks, and all the stuff that goes with it. Ready or not, here it comes! One of the major issues with this time of year is the inevitable anxiety that arises around a new school year. Maybe it’s as simple as a new teacher, and all the fear involved with that. Or maybe your child’s best friend moved to a different school. Or maybe this is your child’s first year in a whole new school. I have a 6th grade daughter who is starting in the Middle School this year, and Oh my! What a transition! But she’s the kind of kid that welcomes new things and new challenges. She’s just like her mom, so her anxiety is not a major issue. But our 3rd grade daughter is more like me. If she could stay in 2nd grade her whole life, I think she would. New people? New environment? New teacher? No thanks! She’s struggling with deep anxiety about starting a new school year, and a lot of it is because she knows that her older sister won’t be in the same school as her. She’ll only be across the parking lot, but that’s far enough to strike fear and anxiety in our youngest daughter’s little heart. So how do we help our little ones through this? What can we do for them to calm their fears? Here’s some things I’ve learned along the way that might help.

Have a good, predictable routine in place at home. School, in the mind of an anxious child, can be a very unpredictable place. So children need to know that home is a place where life feels under control. This doesn’t mean a rigid environment where everyone feels controlled by the routine, but rather a safe place, with free time to play and recharge. The key to this is balance of after school activities. Too many extracurricular activities can create rush and chaos and an out-of-control feeling for any kid. Committing to too many after school activities is a trend in, I believe, most American homes these days. In my family, we allow one activity per kid per week. Our oldest loves volleyball, and our youngest is loving taking piano lessons. This is what works for us. What works for you might be different.  That’s okay as long as it feels balanced; and there aren’t too many irons in the fire.

Have reasonable and predictable (written out) rules and consequences in place at home.  This way you children have a sense of knowing where they stand with you at all times. They should be able to get consequences from you without having to think that you have quit delighting in them. And when you aren’t confident with the rules and consequences, you have a tendency to react to them in anger, and that communicates to them that you don’t like them. I like to think of it in terms of the referees in a NBA game. They never have to get angry, because they’re confident in their own knowledge of the rules and the effectiveness of the consequences. Many parents don’t know their own rules and they struggle constantly with what consequences actually work with each kid. Parents who deal with this level of ambiguity often find themselves reacting in very negative ways to their kids’ behaviors.

Manage your own anxiety. Let’s face it, a lot of times our kids are anxious about stuff because we are. I want my kid to have the perfect teacher, and be in a class with perfect kids. I never want my kid to endure bullying or the manipulative tactics of that little desk-neighbor, or have to endure their teacher yelling at the class (because sometimes teachers lose it too).  I don’t want my children to struggle through tough situations. The new term is “Lawnmower Parent”. This is a parent who goes ahead of their children, leveling the ground, to prevent them from having to struggle through problems on their own. But the more we fret and worry about these things, the more anxious our kids are going to be.

Celebrate mistakes and failure. This is a big one. Kids feel the pressure to perform and measure up. They’re constantly comparing themselves to more competent, or cooler kids at school. I’ve gotten to a place where I truly believe that mistakes and failure are some of the most important experiences for kids. But fear of failure (and embarrassment) is a driving force to beginning of the year anxiety for anyone. I think any good teacher will know this concept. In fact I’ve seen a little sign in a classroom that sums it up perfectly: Always make new mistakes. Mistakes should be encouraged and celebrated. Try to respond to your child’s failure with a sense of excitement, rather than disappointment.

Listen to your children. Listen to their voices and listen to their behaviors. You don’t have to be a professional counselor to be a good parent, but you should let your children know that you are interested in what’s going on in their lives. Develop a genuine sense of curiosity about their day. Don’t try to swoop in and fix all of their problems for them, but just listen and keep them talking about it.  If this is a struggle for you, do a little search on the internet about “active listening” and read about how to keep the lines of communication open.

I hope that some of these thoughts help alleviate the anxiety that seems to be a fact of life for this time of year. But I want to encourage all parents to seek out professional help if you feel that your child is experiencing debilitating anxiety that affects their daily functioning.  Family counselors and individual therapists can be a great asset in helping to alleviate some of these issues, and there is no shame in asking for help. Have a wonderful, as-anxiety-free-as-possible, school year!!

~ Matt Stevenson, LMFT | Real Life Family Counseling

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