Southern hemisphere parents have the triple whammy of transition after summer school holidays. The excitement of Christmas, the longest holiday break and a sharp shock of getting back into the school routine all add to stress levels.
Children can have strong feelings about these sorts of transitions. If this is your child you may even begin to feel yourself becoming stressed out too. It can be tricky to know how to help the child who feels things strongly.
For transitions to go well parents need a great deal of calmness and some awesome skills. Our child needs to manage unexpected things and be flexible about new people and situations. Sensitive kids will find this tricky.
Keep in mind that it’s expected all kids feel a little apprehensive about change. Parents tend to be more aware of this when children start school for the first time but older children will have wobbles too, even if they don’t seem to show it. A secondary school teacher I know says she reckons starting High School is much tougher on kids than Primary.
We can respond in ways which help and avoid ways that will make it harder for everyone. Here’s a quick list to help respond with firmness and love at this intense time of year:
What to do
Focusing on practical things can help us to feel ready for what’s coming up and calm the atmosphere.
- Routine and structure reduce everyone’s stress. Remember the things you are already doing are keeping them on track, like making sure they get enough sleep, eat well and get regular exercise. If you’ve got out of the routine don’t heap pressure on yourself to fix all of it straight away. Choose one thing. Setting an earlier bed time in stages could be a good start.
Routine and structure reduce everyone’s stress.
- There are practical steps you can take to ease transition. Keep children involved and get them to help with organising the environment. Have the uniform, bags and shoes ready in the right place, ready to go. Small steps help transition as everyone gets in the zone for school. Depending on our parenting style and personality, organising things will be second nature or we might need some nudging. If you are the more relaxed type begin with putting a box or a chair out for each child’s things to go in. Don’t ambush kids at the last minute because you think it will be easier for them. Take small steps in the right direction and get started on something achievable now. If you are an organising ninja you’ll already have a laminated chart on the wall.
Organising practical things reduces everyone’s stress.
Respond to the stress, don’t react
Big emotions. We all have them. Strongly reactive children will revert to type when they are under pressure. How can we help these children learn how to manage big emotions?
Responding in a firm and loving way when our child is genuinely worried or upset about going back to school can make a huge difference.
Parents say “How do I get them to stop being upset?” because they want to avoid a fuss and move on. This is a short-term outcome which is obviously important. What is also important is to realise this is a powerful “teachable moment”. An opportunity to learn “how to learn”. Once your child gets brave around this they can transfer the skill to other areas.
Avoid the communication pitfalls
Don’t dismiss what your child says by saying: “Don’t be silly. You’ll be fine.” or things like “But you LOVE school, all your friends will be there”.
Typical responses like these (from a loving parental standpoint) are intended to make our child feel better. They do not work.
Dismissing feelings and arguing with our child will actually cause them to become uncertain of their true feelings. They may feel “wrong” for having a feeling. It not only causes a roadblock to communication, it weakens our bond with them and it can have the effect of stopping them talking to us about how they feel.
Validate, validate, validate.
Instead of dismissing feelings, validate them. Set them up for success to know they are having a perfectly understandable feeling. They can learn to manage their very strong emotion with our help, even if they can’t do it…yet.
Start by asking some questions designed to get them thinking about how they “might” feel and what they can do with the feelings they have.
Forms of words to use
Let’s try some wording to help support a reluctant child about an upcoming and possibly dreaded visit to the doctor, as an example:
- ASK – how will you feel at the doctor’s appointment?
- What will you do with those feelings?
Other sorts of phrases which get our children thinking for themselves include:
- What could your strategy be?
- What can we do to make things easier for you?
Think of yourself as an “emotion coach”. We’re not aiming to “fix” our child’s problem we want them to start doing creative thinking for themselves. Children find it empowering to be asked these sorts of questions. We can’t take away all the negativity they feel but we can help them learn to be “brave”. When they are brave they can overcome their entirely understandable feelings.
Who doesn’t want a child to feel empowered?!
Other strategies to desensitise this sort of child can include a visit to the school on the weekend to play on the playground and meeting the class teacher in advance. Some crafty parents will take a photo of the teacher and put it on the fridge to help build a bond.
What if I am having trouble controlling my reactions?
We know we are supposed to stay calm and in charge in a “kind” sort of way. Emotions are contagious so when we are calm children are more likely to learn how to process their own emotions. When transition is hard for families feeling calm at this stage may take some sort of Mother Teresa compassion.
Spend time calming ourselves.
Take time to be more aware of the feelings you are having when your child is upset by a transition. Most parents tell me that they start to feel a sort of panic come over them. Maybe your inner voice is saying things like “Oh no, not this again. I thought we had got through this already.” You may also have some negative labels about your child – “Why do you have to make everything so difficult?!”
No parent ever in the history of parenting has ever been able to access any calm unless we have enough sleep, good food, exercise and time to ourselves. We all know how challenging this is for any person to do, let alone one who actually has real children. You are without doubt the most important resource in your child’s life. Prioritise yourself. We can’t always manage a big block of time to ourselves like getting away for weekend. So maybe a magazine and a coffee, a walk around the block and some time to chat with a friend? Focus on bite-sized chunks at regular intervals.
All of this is fine but my child “should” be able to do this for himself.
“Shoulds” get in the way of making progress and don’t actually relate to any real child. “Should” children are mythical beasts who only exist in Disney or the Brady bunch. They do what they are told, the first time we ask them to, grateful that we asked them in the first place. So no. No relation to any sort of real child we know or are ever going to meet.”
Ditch the “should”.
Try some reframing.
Reframing can help us stay calm as it increases our levels of empathy towards our child
My child should be able to sort his own kit out for school.
My child is having a problem, not being a problem. My child will be able to organise himself when he has enough time to learn, gets the right strategies and develops some maturity.
When we acknowledge that our child is having a struggle and avoid seeing them as doing this “on purpose” or ” just to be a pain” we have increased empathy. It’s much easier to be the kind and loving parent and help everyone move forward.