Many children are both excited and nervous about going back to school after summer vacation, especially if they'll be in a class without their friends. And we parents often share our child's first-day jitters when the school year begins, worrying about their well-being and what we will do if they balk at going to school on the first day. Here's your game plan to settle those worries and help your child start school with confidence.
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 about starting fourth grade!"
You: "That will be so exciting, right? Fourth grade!! ... And what about scared? Tell me about feeling scared."
She might respond by describing a specific fear:
- "I'm scared that I'll feel left out because my friends aren't in my class and the other kids all know each other."
- "I'm scared that I 've forgotten how to do the math so I won't understand it."
- "I'm scared that I will miss you a lot because I really liked being home with you this summer."
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 that she's all alone with it. Instead, offer understanding.
"You're scared about that, huh? I hear you. Tell me more. What's the worst thing about that?"
What our children need most from us when they're feeling big emotions is just our calm, warm presence, which helps them feel safe to explore the feeling. That's how they face and work through it, so the feeling starts to recede. So just pay full attention, nod, and restate what your child says so they feel you listening.
- "I know you will miss Sara. We can make sure that you get to see her after school to play. Maybe even the first day!"
- "Last year when you started in your class you didn't know anyone, and you made friends within a couple of weeks."
"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? 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 may make kids more fearful because it's the opposite of empowering.)
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 or snuggling with her and she starts to get off your lap, pull her back to you and tell her how much you love holding her, and to please not 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 mock 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. It doesn't even have to be explicitly about separation. All giggling defuses anxiety. The more giggling the better!
Is the return to school a challenge for most children? Yes! But when we face problems, and we have enough support, we develop the inner resources to manage those problems. That's how we develop resilience, not to mention new skills and capabilities. So take a deep breath and remind yourself "My child can do hard things, with enough support." And, so can you!