"Dr. Laura...... School is reopening here and my daughter (age five) says she's feeling nervous about it. Any pointers on what I can to help her prep emotionally?"
Many countries outside the US are re-opening schools. If you live in a place where children are returning to classes after the pandemic "shelter-in-place",
your child is probably both excited and nervous about going back to school. And you might have some of those same feelings, just as we parents
often share our child's first-day jitters when the school year begins. Here's your game plan to settle those worries and help your child start
school again with confidence. First.....
If you're worried about your child returning to school, your child will pick up on your anxiety. Fear is infectious. So start by noticing your own feelings
about your child's return to school.
Are you confident that it will go well? Great! Now you can support your child.
Are you a bit worried? Notice how that feels in your body. It's just fear. It's normal to feel some fear in life -- that's part of being human.
But once you accept that, then give yourself an antidote. Notice the thoughts that are creating your discomfort. For instance, maybe you're worried that
your child will balk on the first day.
Acknowledge that fear and then reassure yourself that whatever happens, you can handle it. (Fear is just thinking that you won't be able to handle something.
But you've got this!)
Start thinking about a plan for the first day that will help your child. Give yourself more inner resource to draw on by focusing on all the times that
you knew just what to do to help your child relax and feel good. What you focus on is what you experience, so this will help shift you from anxiety
to well-being and confidence. That's what you want your child to pick up from you.
Then, start the discussion...
Ask your child to tell you three feelings she has about returning to school.
Then, ask why she feels each thing.
For instance, if she says "Excited, scared, worried" you might respond "I hear you. Excited, and scared, and worried. Tell me about excited."
She might say: "I'm excited to see everyone again!"
You: "That will be so exciting, right? After all this time? And what about scared? Tell me about feeling scared."
She might respond by describing a specific fear:
- "I'm scared that there will still be germs at the school."
- "I'm scared that I'll feel left out because the other kids have been online with each other."
- "I'm scared that I won't understand the math because I wasn't doing the homework."
- "I'm scared that I will miss you a lot because I really liked being home with you."
- "I'm scared that you'll be too busy for me now because you're going back to work."
Acknowledge the fear:
Your answer will depend on what she says, of course. But your goal is not to talk your child out of the fear or worry, which will just make her feel she's
all alone with it. Instead, offer understanding.
"You're scared about that, huh? That is a scary thought. Tell me more."
- "I have loved being home with you, and I will never be too busy for you."
- "The school has very carefully sanitized every inch of the building and the playground."
"Hmm... I wonder what you could do if that happens? It's okay to feel that way -- lots of kids do. It might feel scary, but it wouldn't be the end of the world. I think you could handle it, if we think about it in advance and you feel prepared. You're pretty resourceful! What could you do to help yourself?"
"I wonder what you could do to connect with one of the kids you like, before you are back at school next week? Now that the lockdown is lifted, maybe we can have a playdate with your friend this weekend."
And, after you've listened as much as you can...
Laughter decreases the stress hormones circulating in the body, actually decreasing feelings of anxiety. So play games that get your child giggling to
help her feel less anxious.
- Play bucking bronco with her on your back, so she shrieks with laughter as you lurch around the room trying to toss her off.
- Play airplane and zoom her wildly around the house.
- Put your palms against each other and let her push you across the room, giving just enough resistance to make it fun.
Go for any kind of play other than tickling that gets your child giggling, with as much warmth as possible. (Tickling doesn't seem to release stress hormones,
and often makes kids more fearful because they aren't in control of it.)
Separation games are also useful, if part of your child's anxiety about school starting is about separating from you. One game is "Please Don't Leave Me."
When you have been reading to her and she starts to get off your lap, pull her back to you and tell her how much you love holding her, and please don't
go away from you ever and you want to hold her always. Keep your voice light and playful rather than needy so she feels free to pull away, and keep
scooping her back to you and begging her to stay. The point of this is to heal those feelings inside her of being worried to let you go again now that
she will have do without you at school. In this game, she gets to push you away and reassure you that's it's okay for her to leave.
Another terrific game for separation anxiety is the Bye Bye Game. It's a simple version of Hide and Seek that triggers just a little separation
anxiety, just enough to get her giggling. Say "Let's play Bye-bye. If you want me, yell Peanut Butter" (or whatever she would think is funny.)
Then hide behind the couch, or the door, for just a moment before YOU yell "Peanut Butter" and run out, and hug her. Say "I missed you too much to leave! Ok, I will be brave! Let me try that again." and
go hide again. Again, come back out before she yells for you, which should get her giggling, especially if you play act being silly and excessively
worried. Keep playing this, with you trying to yell first -- and not really leaving -- as long as she is giggling. Again, this game helps your child
to face her anxiety about being separated from you, but in a safe way. And since you are the one expressing fear, she can reassure you, which helps
her feel reassured as well.
I'm sure you can come up with more rough-housing games that get your child giggling. Just notice what makes your child laugh and do more of it, no matter
how silly it is. The more giggling the better, when there's been so much fear and anxiety during this pandemic!