Well Self, Well Family: Fall Column

Well Self, Well Family: Fall Column

Easing Back to School Stress in Four Steps

As both a teacher and a mama, I have the honor and privilege of seeing the “back to school” season from several different perspectives. This time of year can be extremely stressful and taxing, particularly for children and families. Through navigating this season year after year with my two sons (and hundreds of students), I’ve learned how to embrace the transition and see a unique opportunity to build strong, lasting relationships with my children.

One of the most significant sources of anxiety for children and parents leading up to the first day of school is fear of the unknown. My sons often worry about what teachers they’ll have, if they’ll remember how to find their way around the school, what friends will be in their classes and if they’ll find extra-curricular activities that are meaningful to them. Don’t get me wrong – these are all rational fears. But they are also rational fears that we as parents can speak to and assuage. I worry about all these things, too. And if I’m not careful, I will catch myself wringing my hands through sleepless nights leading up to the first day of school. What I’m learning is that it doesn’t have to be this way.

I’ve learned from psychologist and writer Dr. John Gottman that helping our children build emotional intelligence is a three-pronged approach: teaching our children to truly feel their feelings instead of ignore them, helping our children express their emotions in a responsible way and empowering our children to communicate their feelings to someone they trust if they need help. The natural anxiety that comes with starting a new school year provides us parents with an opportunity to help our children develop a strong emotional intelligence that will carry them through their school-age years and the rest of their lives.

If you want to take advantage of this opportunity, here are a few steps you can take when your child exhibits signs of anxiety about going back to school:

Pay attention to your child’s emotions. As adults, we know that our emotions serve a purpose. We sometimes forget that our children’s emotions serve a purpose as well. By paying attention to how your child is feeling, you will be better prepared to help them navigate tough situations.
Approach emotions with a positive attitude. A child in distress can present frustration for his or her parents, but I am learning to see that same situation as an opportunity to connect with my child and teach them how to develop a strong sense of himself. Instead of reacting with frustration or anger (which can escalate an emotional situation quickly), take a deep breath and consider how you might use this stressful time as a chance to deepen your relationship with your child.

Listen to your child and help them understand their feelings are okay. When I am stressed out or scared, more than advice or really anything else, what I need is to know that I am heard. I try to give my sons this same kind of grace and safe place when they are struggling as well. By leaning into our child’s experience, we are helping them understand that it is okay for them to feel whatever they are feeling and that they can find a safe place in us as their parents.

Help your child navigate their emotions in a healthy way. While it is okay for us to feel any emotion, it is not okay for us to express that emotion in any way that we want. This truth is the key to helping our children develop strong emotional intelligence. In our home, this means talking through what we are feeling. Statements like “I am really mad right now” or “I am sad because I miss Nanna” help my boys put words to where they are emotionally. From there, we can talk about how to express that feeling appropriately and finding a solution to the problem.

As you approach this back-to-school season, here are a few things I want you to remember. First of all, everyone is nervous – even the teachers. My stomach is in complete knots on the first day of school every August, and I’ve been doing this for eight years now! Secondly, this is a short season, and most children’s anxiety levels decrease rapidly by the last day of the first week of school. Hold onto that and remind yourself that it will all be over quickly. And finally, remember that you have what it takes to walk your child through this important time in life. One of the most magnificent roles of a parent is being able to equip and empower your child to face challenges with confidence and focus. Lean into this season and watch the magic unfold. I am rooting for you!

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