Back to school already? I really can’t believe that summer is almost over and that it is time to have this conversation. Here in Tennessee, many schools start back NEXT WEEK. Where you are, you might have another few weeks, but it’s coming up and soon.
The main topic of conversation in my office over the past couple of weeks from kids of all ages is anxiety about going back to school. Now, as a parent, you probably don’t think that your child is really having anxiety about going back to school. In fact, research repeatedly shows that most parents underestimate how anxious their children are in general and overestimate how optimistic they are.
In my office, the most common topics that children talk about when it comes to back to school worries include:
Has your child talked about any of those worries when it comes to returning to school next month? I know you want to be helpful in your response. Unfortunately, most of the typical responses I hear from parents are actually not helpful at all.
Recently, I saw this meme and I think it applies here:
The same is true for worry. You will never get a child to stop worrying about something by telling them “Don’t Worry.”
What’s wrong with telling your child how smart they are? Or telling them not to worry? Well, typical “bad” responses to children’s worries fall into one of at least 3 categories:
When you tell a person that they should not have the feeling that they are having, it is not helpful. Don’t worry, don’t be so mad, don’t cry about that are all examples of dismissive statements. They don’t work. In fact, it will more than likely INCREASE the intensity of that feeling because now your child is going to try to PROVE TO YOU that the feeling is valid.
It is simply untrue that “everything will be okay.” Even very young children understand that this is a platitude designed to make people feel better, but it doesn’t work because it is not accurate. One of the standard therapy questions is “Is it TRUE and is it HELPFUL?” Be careful about over-promising or using these far-reaching words because they can easily backfire on you.
The one that feels to parents like the most helpful is actually the worst of all. By jumping in and solving the problem that your child is worried about, a few messages are sent. One is that your child is not capable of solving problems on their own which leads to even greater anxiety in the future. The second is that your “solution” may fail. And if it does, then now you become the target of any anger, frustration, or embarrassment.
Dr. Dan Siegel (author of The Whole Brain Child, No Drama Discipline and other great books about parenting) has an expression
Name it to tame it“
What that means is that when you validate how your child is feeling by naming that emotion in the moment, it actually DECREASES the intensity of the feeling. Simply saying, “you are really worried that you won’t like you teacher” helps build connection between you and your child and let’s them know that you can understand their point of view.
One of the most helpful phrases that you can totally steal from me is
You might say, “I wonder if anyone else has had this problem or I wonder how the school has handled locker problems in the past.”
What usually happens is that your child will start talking about information that they already have. They will say that they have talked to a friend about it or that the teachers addressed it during orientation. This helps activate their own capacity to talk through the worry and sometimes that is enough.
This one works especially well with the “I wonder” phrase. You might say, “I wonder what a friend of yours would do if that happened.” Taking it into a more hypothetical situation about someone else helps your child activate their own problem solving skills.
Usually, they can start coming up with examples of people that they could go to for help (a friend, a teacher, etc). If they have trouble here, your job is to focus on the helpers.
Who might your friend ask for help if that happened?
Finally, you can highlight concrete coping skills that your child has OR teach them some new ones.
Some helpful coping skills include:
There’s one final expression from my favorite play therapist, Garry Landreth that is paraphrased often
It’s not only what you do, but what you do after what you have done that is important.”
If you are reading this and thinking that you have said all of the wrong things and screwed your kid up for life, you haven’t. It’s not what you do, but what you do after what you have done. Go back and say, “You know when I told you not to worry about going to back to school…well, what I should have said was that it’s really normal to be worried about school.”
And then be quiet and just hold that space with your child. If they want to talk more, they will. If they don’t, that’s okay too.
Jennifer Taylor, LCSW, RPT is an experienced child and family therapist and public speaker who specializes in trauma, ADHD, and conduct problems. Discover more about her diverse clinical background and family. Reach out to Jennifer with questions or comments by emailing at email@example.com
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