Ah, the kids are finally back to school and everyone is calm, settled and happy. Right? Umm…
The start of the new school year is a moment of emotional upheaval for many children and parents. Our focus is usually on managing anxieties around the moment of transition, and perhaps feeling some relief too. We imagine it’s like ripping off a plaster – painful but quickly forgotten.
However, sometimes the aftermath of starting school can take us all by surprise. If things are still (or more) emotionally turbulent in your home as term goes on, you’re not alone.
So, how can we best support our children - and ourselves - at this tricky time?
1. Normalise it
The first (and perhaps the most important) thing we can do during times of stress is to take a pause and realise how understandable it is that we’re feeling this way.
As term goes on, the adrenaline from all the preparation, excitement, sadness, relief, nostalgia, anxiety and pride of the first few days gradually subsides. We can be left with a bit of a slump. The reality of constant scheduling and homework starts to set in. Increasing organisational, social and academic demands can take children by surprise and lead to exhaustion and feelings of failure if they’re struggling. The sensory overstimulation of days at school can leave little brains reeling in the evenings. The relentless scheduling and juggling can be tough for you, too. Coping with emotional fall-out in the evenings is just another thing for us to manage, especially if it triggers our own big feelings about how we experienced school as a child.
To make things feel even worse, your child - and you - might feel like everyone else has settled in just fine, skipping into school each morning, and managing everything naturally. It’s normal: our brains are evolutionarily wired to compare ourselves to others – this used to help keep us safe in the pack. But nowadays this focus can simply exacerbate our stress levels, especially when the information we have about how others are coping is not always (hardly ever!) accurate or realistic.
Phew. It’s a lot. Acknowledge it. A useful phrase is to say to ourselves, “NO WONDER I/we/my child feels like this…” and allow that to sink in. If you notice your brain saying “But…” – catch it and sit back with the No Wonder.
2. Communicate it
Some children are really good at telling you how they’re feeling about school. Lots of children aren’t. In fact, they might not even know themselves. Difficult feelings are often shown via our children’s behaviour, so we have to be good interpreters!
Finding a creative way to open up those communication channels is so important in making sure your child doesn’t feel alone with their experiences. Maybe one of these options would work for your child:
Talk to them when you’re side-by-side and moving or busy: in the car, walking the dog, tidying up. This takes the pressure off and allows for more fluid chats.
Ask specific questions, rather than general ones: rather than “how was your day?” try something like “who was kind to you today?”. In fact, asking “What was the worst thing that happened today?” can seem brave, but it’s a great way of showing them you aren’t afraid to hear negative news.
Be casual. If your child doesn’t seem to want to talk, don’t push it. You can say something like, “Sometimes I don’t feel like talking either. No big deal. I’m here for you whenever you want to tell me something about school”.
Do something visual.
Some children like to have a “weather report” poster, where they can pin a picture of the weather that best represents how they’re feeling each day.
Another option is a “Tell-me chart”. Draw out a week chart and let your child draw a face or a shape when they get home to let you know how it went, without having to explain.
Tell a story about yourself as a child at school. Children’s brains are wired to learn through stories and the indirectness can help them process their experience in a low-pressure way.
Follow this advice yourself, too: the old adage, “a problem shared is a problem halved”.
3. Describe it
So, how can I best respond when my child DOES say what’s going on?
Try the 3 Ls:
Label – Label what’s going on for them.
You might have heard “name it to tame it” – we know that simply giving our feelings and experiences a name helps us to process them.
You can simply repeat their words back to them, in a warm, understanding tone: “You don’t want to go to school today”.
You can show tentative curiosity about how they feel: “I could be wrong, but I wonder if there’s a part of you that feels worried/stressed/upset?” If they say no, that’s ok. If you were right, the connection will be there. If not, they’ll still know you are there for them.
Let it be – Let them know it’s ok to feel what they’re feeling
“It’s ok to feel worried/like you hate school/sad about your friend. It makes sense.”
One of the most important things we can do to help our kids open up to us is to empathise without trying to find a solution or to put a positive spin on it. It can be very tempting to say, “I understand you’re worried… BUT look! You’ll be fine!” or “BUT we can try XYZ…”. Resist the urge to say BUT…!
We want to show them that we can hold their emotions without us being overwhelmed by them. This is very tricky, especially when most of us have been brought up as “doers and fixers”, and when our child’s emotions trigger big feelings within us.
What we CAN do is:
Learn – What do they need?
“I’m here for you. Is there anything that the worried part of you needs right now? Does it want to make a plan? Does it need a cuddle? Or to be left alone?”
Sometimes children WILL want you to encourage them, and that’s ok! Replace But with And: “A part of you feels so worried AND I know there’s another part of you that’s really good at solving problems/that’s brave/that’s excited to try new things”.
Don’t forget to follow this process for yourself too! Recognising and validating your own emotions is essential – both in soothing yourself and in modelling how to do this for your child. Remember, no matter how you’re feeling, it’s ok. Label how you feel; Let it be; Learn what you need.
4. Soothe it
Scheduling downtime after a day at school is important in helping little brains wind down, even if your child enjoys school. Building this into a regular routine rather than deciding based on daily moods helps to increase your child’s sense of certainty, which is crucial in allowing them to shift into that “rest and digest’ mode; pop it on a visual calendar or daily planner to make it extra predictable.
You’ll know how long and what types of activities help your child most, but they could include time in a sensory den, some physical activity outside, listening to music or an audiobook, or just cuddles on the sofa.
Don’t forget that you need this too! It can feel impossible to schedule in self-care activities as a busy parent, but keep in mind that even something small can help shift your system back into rest mode. Remind yourself that you matter too: you’re the lynchpin keeping the whole show on the road and if you’re not ok, no one’s ok. Above all, give yourself a gentle pat on the back for being the kind of parent that wants to learn how to better support their child – and themselves.
About the Author:
Dr Jo Mueller is Clinical Psychologist who specialises in working with parents to help you feel more calm, confident, and connected to your kids. Because parenting is HARD! Dr Jo has been privileged to work with mums, dads, and children around the world for the last 15 years, including a decade in UK NHS mental health services and parenting research. She’s also a mum of two lively children, so she understands the day-to-day realities of parenting and brings a full dose of “I get it” to her work. Download her FREE guide: “6 ways to keep your cool with your kids in the mornings” now at www.drjothepsychologist.com/keep-your-cool.
Follow Jo on Instagram & Facebook @drjothepsychologist.