For many teens, the start of the school year can be a bit like the Staples commercial, you may remember the one where the parent is practically dancing down the aisles while the child is dragging behind looking anything but excited.
Lots of factors can influence how kids (am using ‘kids’ and ‘child’ interchangeably to refer to children and teens) feel at the start of the school year: how much fun they had over the summer, how much they like / dislike academic work, nature of peer relationships, physical health, and emotional health, to name a few.
For those whose kids enjoy the start of the year, please take a deep breath and enjoy!
For those whose children are less thrilled, here’s a few suggestions that might help, from how to help the child who is slightly disgruntled to those who are more panic stricken:
- Establish a routine as fast as you can once school starts to enable healthy eating, sleeping, and physical activity habits, as well as time for homework and socializing. The older or more able your child, the more involved they can and should be in the planning.
- If your child is nervous, pause on the urge to give reassurance, remind them of how awesome they are, give rational solutions, or lecture them. Instead, get curious. If your child is nervous, ask, “What’s up?” (I prefer this to ‘why?” for a host of reasons that are too wordy for this blog) and really listen to their answer.
For mild anxiety or stress, deep breathing may help to reset their nervous system and soothe them back into rational thought. I really like a breathing exercise I learned from Dr. Christopher Willard, called “nine eleven breathing” – breath in for a count of nine, out for eleven. The key here, is that the outbreath is longer than the inbreath. There are physiological reasons as to how this helps, I’m not going into that detail here. By engaging in this sort of breathing, some degree of anxiety may be reduced, and our kids get out of their heads, and back into the world as it is in the moment, focused on their breath and not the future!
If your child is highly anxious or stressed, this is likely not the time for rational discussion or a debate about how realistic their worry is. First, let your child know that you realize some strong emotions are surfacing. Second, name the emotion if your child struggles with this or is unaware in the moment. Naming feelings makes them less mysterious and your child will feel emotionally understood. Next, validate the emotion, careful not to flip the focus onto you and your own experiences – link their feelings to what is going on, perhaps something like “You seem really anxious, and there is a lot today that is going to be new for you.” Finally, help them move towards the anxiety evoking situation with love and support, perhaps a hug or just letting some quiet time pass until they are ready to re-engage in the day or in some problem solving, if needed. I often like to ask, “Assume it’s true, what will you do?” Often our kids have the solution and let’s be fair, most of us prefer our own ideas, so give your child some time and space to come up with a plan of their own.
If the steps above are difficult for you as the parent, that may be a signal that you need some support for yourself. If they are not enough to enable your child or teen to function in their daily life, they may need some professional support.