Back To School Anxiety: What Not To Do
Preparation is important. So, as we anticipate another school year, it makes sense to prepare, to get acquainted with the new schedule, hammer out the logistics, and replenish the supplies.
But, alas, when it comes to preparation and parenting, it’s a slippery slope–and all too easy to go overboard. It’s easy to lecture, go over the schedule, offer advice, and ask lots of questions.
Is there something called Momsplaining? I’m sure I’m guilty of that.
I suggest you counter the busy-ness of August and September with a bit of stillness. Stop talking long enough to open up some space for kids (and especially teens) to think and talk and problem solve and complain a bit… minus the parental commentary.
Too much stepping in by adults hampers the opportunity for kids and teens to practice some vital skills: handling uncertainty, developing some age-appropriate autonomy, and learning how to walk through the process of problem solving when things don’t go exactly as planned.
These are the very skills that anxious kids and parents lack, and the skills that all kids can (and should) develop with practice. When it comes to anxiety and depression, these are the skills of both treatment and prevention.
Don’t Fall Into Momsplanning Either
Attempts to make sure your child knows everything about the new school year is not only impossible, it gives your child the message that certainty is a requirement for moving forward.
Anxiety requires that all information is gathered and all wrinkles ironed out ahead of time.
Of course, life doesn’t work this way—and the beginning of a new school year certainly doesn’t. School bus routes are still being adjusted, teachers are learning about their new students, and schedules are in flux.
Framing up the start of a school year as a time that requires flexibility and combines knowns and unknowns is both realistic and helpful modeling. I use the What I Know/ What I Don’t Know Game with kids. I describe it in this video.
How Momsplaining and Momplanning
Can Fuel Worry
A few years ago, I met with a family that was struggling with anxiety. Ten-year-old Polly was having trouble sleeping in her own room and going to her dance classes. She was complaining of tummy aches at school and visiting the nurse with increasing frequency. Much of her worry at school focused on the car pool arrangements. Who was going to pick her up? What if someone forgot? What if she couldn’t find the car?
To get a sense of Polly’s problem solving skills, I asked her, “What would you do if somehow there was a carpool problem? What if one of the parents did forget or was late?” Before Polly had a chance to answer, her mom jumped in.
She first turned to Polly: “That will not happen, do you understand? We would never let that happen. You will be safe. We will not forget you.”
She then turned to me: “We go over the schedule every Sunday night and every morning. She knows I check in with the other parents. We won’t have to deal with that. Polly asks me about carpool a lot, and I tell her that she will always be safe.”
This loving mother was getting in the way of any opportunity for Polly to develop confidence in the face of life’s glitches… while conveying a sense of urgency and danger with her constant reassurance.
Resist the desire to intervene and fix it
As the school year begins, there will likely be bumps as children get used to a new teacher, new classmates, new schedules and even a new school. A return to old struggles may re-emerge as well: social and academic challenges, tucked away for the summer, are cued and ready to go.
Resist the impulse to jump in and fix things right away when your children come home with complaints. Instead, chat about how they might problem solve…and let them know that it takes time to adjust and figure out the new terrain.
Allowing kids to “work it through” is akin to practicing an instrument. We don’t expect them to do it perfectly and active repetition is key. The trouble starts when we attempt to do the practicing for them, hoping we can somehow guarantee a flawless performance by taking over. This makes no sense when learning an instrument or a sport, but we justify it when assisting our children with things like emotional management, compromise, and social navigation.
I’ve also noticed that when parents step in to fix, they usually don’t do it calmly and patiently. They are fraught and stressed with the possibility that their child is uncomfortable or struggling, and the demands of their own adult lives join in, too. Stress is contagious. Parents, teachers, coaches are having more and more trouble managing their own worries and stress–and children are listening. I’ve said it before: anxious adults convey to their children that the world is a dangerous place and children believe them. I’m hearing it everywhere.
Instead, connect kids back to a previous experience when something felt “weird” at first. Normalize the expected discomfort that comes with “newness.” Some problems may ultimately require parental intervention, but showing kids how to slow down and problem solve, rather than you as the parent charging in immediately and taking over, is extremely valuable.
Kids find their own paths when we show them how to adapt and adjust. Love them, hug them, have dinner with them, and model for them what you want them to learn, without stepping in too quickly and DOING it your way instead.
Parents, Here’s Your Homework
DON’T WORK TO “GET RID” OF YOUR CHILD’S DIFFICULT EMOTIONS AND DISTRESS.
It is far more helpful to normalize their feelings than try to remove them. It’s normal to be nervous before the start of school, even if they’re excited as well. It’s normal to feel sad that summer is over, or to be disappointed that their best pal isn’t in their class or they didn’t get the teacher they were hoping for. It’s okay to feel uncomfortable on the noisy bus and take a few days (or weeks) to figure out where to sit.
DON’T BE RIGID NOR MODEL RIGIDITY.
You don’t have to have everything organized, planned, figured out. Let things unfold. Talk about adapting and being flexible. Planning is helpful and necessary, of course, but don’t expect everything to go smoothly. It won’t. And adapt when it doesn’t. When you freak out, you are showing your child how to freak out. Frame up the start of a school year as a time that requires flexibility and combines knowns and unknowns. This is both realistic and helpful modeling
DON’T TALK SO MUCH!
In particular, don’t talk at them. As kids start a new school year, give them space to tell you want they want to tell you as they sort through the newness of the routine. It’s amazing how much they’ll share when you give them the space to talk. And when they do talk, don’t immediately jump in, offer advice, and tell them about your experience. Listen, connect, ask a few questions. But mostly shut up.
DON’T BELIEVE EVERY STORY THAT WORRY TELLS.
Anxiety is catastrophic in its predictions. It anticipates the worst. (This is why I don’t ask worriers, “What’s the worst that can happen?” Anxiety loves to talk about this, and it’s not problem solving.) Flexible thinking teaches kids to look at situations from other perspectives, not just through the rigid lens of worry.
DON’T DO THEIR DAILY STUFF, JUST BECAUSE IT’S MORE EFFICIENT FOR YOU TO DO IT.
Even before they’re totally ready, let them handle homework, picking out clothes, waking up in the morning, making breakfast, etc. Right this moment, take an inventory of the things you are doing for your children that they can do for themselves, and stop doing THREE of them. Kids find their own paths when we show them how to adapt and adjust. Love them, hug them, laugh with them, have dinner together, and model for them what you want them to learn, without jumping in too quickly and DOING it your way instead.