How to prepare your kids for the new school year

It’s a commonly held belief that moving house and changing jobs are two of the most stressful things you’ll ever have to do as an adult. For children, however, the start of the new school year is monumental and can bring a number of worries and underlying concerns to the fore.

Nervous is normal!

It’s perfectly normal for your kids to feel a bit nervous before the start of the new school year but when it comes to dealing with stress and anxiety in children there are a number of things to look out for.

Leading up to the start of school, your child may start complaining of headaches or stomachaches, become unusually sensitive or irritable, throw temper tantrums, have episodes of crying or withdraw into him or herself. This is usually because they’re worrying about a whole host of common issues, such as:

  • Who will be my new teacher?
  • Will I be in the same class as my friend?
  • Will I make new friends in my new class?
  • Will I cope with the new work?
  • Will I do well at school or sport this year?

So how can you help your kids cope with back to school anxiety?

1) Encourage your children to face their fears

Ask your child what is making him or her worried and be sure to tell them that it is only normal to have concerns. Set up a regular time to talk through their fears in the weeks before school starts but remind them that avoiding their fear will only make the anxiety they are experiencing even worse. After all, children who miss school not only miss out on schoolwork, but they miss out on valuable opportunities to make friends and develop relationships with their teachers.

2) Problem…solve!

Parents often try to lessen their children’s worries by reassuring them that “everything will be fine” but try to avoid the trap of empty reassurances and solving the problem for your child. Rather coach your children to think of ways they can solve their problems on their own. A bit like role-play, this technique encourages your child to work through a number of “what ifs” and possible solutions while giving them the tools they need to cope in a real life situation.

3) Talking about role-play…

There’s something to be said for role-playing a situation and helping your child feel more in control. Allowing your child to “walk through” a worrying situation in the safety of your home can help them figure out how to handle it in real life. Try assuming the role of your child in the role-play so that they can learn appropriate responses and coping techniques from you. This will also give you incredible insight into their underlying fears and concerns that they may not have communicated with you previously.

4) When it’s wrong to be right.

This one’s for you, folks. There’s so much pressure these days for kids to succeed, both in the classroom and on the sports field, that we forget children need time to be children. Of course it’s important to encourage your child to work hard and do well at school but it is equally important to accept and embrace your child’s mistakes and imperfections. After all, school should be about the enjoyment of learning, not just the achievement of results…and once your children (and you!) realise this, they’ll feel as if a weight has been lifted from their shoulders.

5) Back to basics

Children are at their most vulnerable when they’re tired or hungry; so set a bed time for your child and stick to it, even on weekends and holidays, and make sure you provide them with plenty of nutritious snacks throughout the day. Routine goes a long way to making life more predictable and giving your children the “guardrails” they need to feel secure. From morning routines and bedtime habits, regulated TV time and homework time, to regular eating schedules, routine is what gets everything ticking.

6) Taking their cue

If you’re experiencing a degree of anxiety about your child starting school yourself, then your little one may be picking up on this. The more confident you appear, the more your child will believe there is nothing to fear. Be comforting and supportive, but be sure to remain firm and resolute at all times. When saying goodbye in the mornings for example, don’t reward your child’s tears by delaying your departure. Acknowledge their feelings in a calm voice, say goodbye again and let their teacher resolve the matter. Chances are, they’ll be playing happily as soon as you’re out of sight!

7) The power of positive thinking

Try to turn your child’s thoughts away from any worries they may have and instead ask them to tell you at least one positive thing about going back to school. Ask them what they’re most excited about or what’s their favourite thing about school. If they can’t think of anything at first, prompt them with a few ideas such as being able to see their friends every day or having access to the school library, or if you’ve got more active kids, talk about they fact that they’ll be kept busy with P.E. and extra-murals.

The big day

As the big day approaches, there’s nothing like a parent’s love to give your child the strength they need to face their fears with confidence, knowing they have your support at home. And if all else fails, a little note in your child’s lunch box will go a long way to helping them get through the day!

Raising Superkid

It might seem a strange thing to say, but you know that you’re doing an outstanding job raising your child when they turn out to be pretty ordinary. Ordinary, from a developmental psychology perspective, is a pretty good thing. Children progress through developmental stages – physically, emotionally and cognitively – and there are no benefits for getting through them faster than usual. In fact, very often the opposite is true: if a child is rushed through their developmental stages, they might not become the masters of each stage that they would need to be in order to cope at the next.

Imagine being made to swim a whole length of the school pool at your first swimming lesson, or being expected to solve a quadratic equation when you are still learning to count to 10.

For many parents who bring their children to my practice, however, excellence is the expected norm and ordinary is considered sub-standard. Apparently, some children routinely walk at 3 months, are talking at 6 months, and very often are cooking coq au vin and showing promising wine-pairing skills by their third birthdays. Every parent believes that their child is special, and takes an enormous amount of pride in seeing their children do things well, but I sense that there is a fine line between healthy parental pride and placing unfair and unrealistic expectations on a son or daughter.

These parents are trying to raise Superkid. Superkid is more intelligent than average, is popular with all the other kids, was reading way before he went to school and is bound to be a movie star and/or cure cancer when he grows up. Superkid is the very opposite of ordinary. After hearing a few of these parental accounts, I have begun to believe that Superkid is largely a figment of the parental imagination.

I have sat through numerous parent intake interviews which are completely absent of the stories of struggles, mistakes, and tantrums that characterize early parenthood (and I am talking about the parents here!). Never mind the child’s struggles, frustrations and shortcomings. Why are these things hidden from child therapists, as if they are things to be ashamed of? Two reasons, I think: the first is to do with parents’ own sense of inadequacy about raising a human being (normal and understandable to feel this way); and the second is to do with the high standards set by society for perfection and achievement, and the myth that success arrives from being better than everyone else.

To expand a little on the first reason: Often parents who don’t realize that their uncertainty about raising a child is normal will desire an exceptional or perfect child to compensate for their own sense of inadequacy. They hope (often unconsciously) that if they raise Superkid they will be proving to themselves and others that they are good parents (and not the confused and battered neophytes they feel like). Their Superkid becomes reassuring proof that they are not failing, which tremendously helps the ailing parent’s self esteem.

Unfortunately, the effect on Superkid is often the opposite. High parental expectations often create an anxious child, uncertain of their self worth outside of their capacity to please others, and unable to engage in activities for their intrinsic worth. Self esteem thus becomes contingent on external accolades and awards, and the same child returns to the therapist’s office at age 30 to talk about how much of a disappointment they are, and how disappointing their life has been.

Here’s the reality: Children need to experience failure, defeat, frustration, loss, sadness in order to grow. The best thing that parents can do in these situations is to be there to support, console and encourage the next attempt. Ordinary kids learn to deal with defeat and tolerate frustration. They set attainable and optimistic goals, and have a realistic sense of what they can and can’t do. They are free to learn and grow in an environment that expects of them to do what they can do well, and to extend themselves just a little bit more to learn to do what they can’t. Best of all, they feel supported and loved by their parents for who they are (warts and all).

Success isn’t about excellence. Success is about doing the things you love mindfully and with enthusiasm, and doing the things you don’t like, but that need to be done, with perseverance and diligence. It’s about rolling with the punches and celebrating the successes. It’s about recognizing that the Ordinary is truly amazing.