With a month of school under my belt, I feel I can reflect a bit on how things went and whether anything can be done differently--better--in the future. Let me start with a statement that sums up most of my observations: BACK TO SCHOOL IS STRESSFUL!
Transitions are hard for everyone. Think about your last vacation. You have a week off. Early in the week, you have managed to put the stress of life back home out of your mind and things are great. Suddenly, it’s Thursday and your flight back on Sunday is approaching fast. Now those thoughts of home return--those thoughts that make Thursday and Friday a bit less relaxing than Monday and Tuesday, when you had all that free time ahead of you. Yet, if this were the Thursday before a long weekend, you’d be feeling awesome. After the week’s vacation, we know we need more time for the transition, because we were away from the daily grind far longer. This is how we’re built--we anticipate and prep for the future, so we’ll be ready to handle what’s coming.This is the curse of the responsible adult/parent, but the foresight that goes with it makes transitions a bit more manageable for us.
Not that it’s any easier, but as adults we’ve been through so many transitions that we are practiced at getting back on that work horse. Most times we can control the mounting anxiety because we have a certain tolerance for suck built up…well that’s what coming back from vacation is, isn’t it? Suck! Sure, we tell ourselves “Oh I feel rested, I’m ready to get back to work!” or “I really want to be back in my own bed.” But really, if we could, we’d stay for another few days or a week or two. We know we can’t, because we have obligations and commitments and deadlines and, as I mentioned, we’ve built up a tolerance for the suck of it all.
Kids don’t have as much practice at dealing with transitions from play to work, and hence no tolerance for the inevitable let-down when playtime is over. In addition, summer vacation is unlike anything in the adult world, because it’s so long and so completely free of many of the stressors at school. It’s therefore really hard for kids to get back to the daily grind. And finally, as adults we don’t always take into consideration just what it means for our kids to go back to school after summer.
Big life change
Cumulative data on stress identifies serious life changes like a new job, a new home, marriage, or a significant loss (death) as the highest contributors to stress. These events cause stress largely because people fear the unknown and worry they won’t be able to handle the adjustments needed to adapt to the new situation. So big life changes = big stress. Now, doesn’t the start of school seem like it might just fit into the category of “big life changes”? New teachers every year, new students in each class, loss of friends from previous classes, unknown workload, and finally, the loss of free time. So I guess I’m saying that going back to school really is stressful. So, it’s really important that we as parents try and keep our own stress levels down so we can help our kids manage theirs.
Manage your own stuff
One of the most stressful situations in parenting is knowing our kids suffer or anticipating that they will, and not being able to help. Our solution as anxiety-ridden parents is to try and fix it right away. We want to talk about it, ask questions, work out solutions. While these strategies have value, they often backfire, as many kids have a tried and true coping strategy called avoidance (or denial).
Avoidance allows kids to effectively put things out of their minds and not deal with it until they have to deal with it. This is not a great strategy by any means, but kids often use it to deal with not only their own anxiety, but their parent’s anxiety as well. So, if your questions like “Are you nervous about school?”, “Are you ok with the kids in your class?”, “Do you think you can handle the homework in __ grade?” or “You know you’re going to have to start getting up early again?” receive only one-word answers, grunts, or sass, know it may be time to check your own anxiety levels. In other words close your mouth! Sometimes the best way for us to help our kids deal with anxiety is for us to let them deal with it.
Some kids, however, may not speak about their stress, but show it with difficult behavior.
Give it a name
For many kids, mine included, avoidance doesn’t really work and stress ends up making a mess all over the place. For these kids, stress translates into challenging behaviors like:
- Tearful bedtimes
- Resistance around small transitions like waking up, getting dressed, eating breakfast, going to bed
- Sticky thoughts (e.g., refusing to wear clothes because of tags)
- Bad language
- Rule breaking
Sometimes, simply telling our kids that they are acting out because they’re stressed helps them become more aware of the stress. Being aware is one step closer to gaining control.
You feel what they feel
I often ask parents in challenging moments to describe what they feel when their child is openly defiant. Parents usually say they feel “out of control”. This is exactly the way parents should feel, because it is the way our kids feel, too. So if we accept Back to School as a “big life change,” kids who act out around this transition simply are struggling with the fear that they may not be able to handle this change. They feel out of control, and try to gain some control back by making us feel the same way they do. Understanding that difficult behaviors and stress are connected, can help soften our initial and often harsh reactions. Keeping knee jerk reactions to challenging behavior in check (the “WTF are you doing?”) can pay dividends in the short term, as we won’t make an even bigger mess by going to battle with our kids when they’re already overwhelmed. Keeping calm in challenging moments is also helpful to reduce challenging behavior in the long term.
Calm begets calm
Keeping ourselves under control in challenging moments is one of the best ways to calm down our kids. It also helps make sure that bad behavior is not reinforced as a way for our kids to feel in control. Here’s an example from my kids: My son takes a toy from my daughter’s room and runs out, giggling like a maniac. She follows, yelling and screaming and crying. She hits him and winds up in trouble. Every time she reacts this way with him, she reinforces the notion that he has power and control over her. It’s no different with our parent tantrums when our kids are behaving badly.
When we blow up at our kids for their challenging behavior, we are essentially saying “You got me.” Additionally, this does not help them calm down and usually serves to escalate things. If, instead, we don’t react, we are saying, “This is not too much for me. And if I can handle it, then you can handle it, too.” Usually they can.
So, next year, before the new school year starts, when my kid is being an absolute nightmare, perhaps the best thing I can do is take a deep breath and simply say: “You’re stressed about the start of school, but I know you’re going to handle it.”