Back to school season is an exciting time for some kids; but for others, this is a very terrifying and upsetting season. Last winter my son changed schools and he was wracked with anxiety for months.
Each morning he woke up, his eyes welled with tears. Eventually the emotion overwhelmed him so much that a waterfall poured from his cheeks to the floor.
On top of all that, he was convinced that the only reason he had to start at a “terrible new school” was “because of God.” But that is a story for another day.
Back-to-school anxiety…it’s hard.
As a parent, you see your child hurting and you immediately want to erase the pain. It’s especially difficult to know the right thing to say. You may say things like…
You’ll make new friends quickly.
Just give it a little time and you’ll adjust.
Or the good old standby — Everything is going to be okay.
You love your children, so of course, you’d want to help fix the problem for them. Plus, you’re stressed yourself, and listening to 30 minutes of endless crying, when you have things to do, and you can’t let them stay home, it’s like…insanity.
Here’s the problem.
All kids will continue to communicate until they feel heard and understood. This is one of the premises of Language of Listening®, the 3 part parenting framework I use.
And because all kids will continue to communicate until they feel heard, saying “Everything is going to be okay” can escalate your child’s communication. This is where you’ll see a child cry harder or longer. They are trying prove to you that what they are feeling is very real and valid.
There may even be times when a child seems to respond and calm down. Then later, the child explodes or experiences bursts of emotion out of nowhere. When unheard upsets build, they will surface again later — somehow, someway.
How to respond to back-to-school anxiety.
When you think about anxiety and what’s behind it, one word usually sums it up: Control. Feeling anxious is about feeling out of control and desperately trying to regain feeling in control.
During the younger years, everything new is a BIG change. Anxious feelings (over something that seems simple to an adult) are very real to kids. As a young child I remember feeling terrified to ride the bus with older kids. They were so much bigger than me and I had no idea if they were going to tease me or give me a wedgie. It was scary!
If kids feel anxious about back-to-school, and they aren’t able to feel in control, it can escalate very quickly. Before long, weekday mornings can feel more like taming a caged wild animal than getting your typically sweet child off to school.
Knowing that all kids must continue to communicate until they feel heard, you can use a technique called SAY WHAT YOU SEE®. This is where you meet your child right where they are — in the moment — and validate what he or she is thinking, feeling, doing and saying.
It might sound something like this…
“You don’t like going to school. You want to stay home. This feels comfortable to you. You wish you could stay home and never go to school again. That would feel fantastic!”
Validation is always the first step.
Saying what your child wants and feels is not the same as agreeing with it or giving your child permission to stay home. This may bring you relief knowing that validation doesn’t change your boundary, but rather, it’s a tool to help you connect with your child and get to the bottom of the anxiety.
If your child still feels anxious, it’s a key indicator that more validation is needed.
When your child nods or starts to calm down, you can stay on their side by stating the boundary as a challenge. It might sound something like this…
“You wish you could stay home, and buddy, you just have to go. That’s just how it is. Must be something that will help you get through this…There, crying. That will work. Getting all those tears out will help you handle it. There you go. You know what you need…”
Looking back at my own situation, it took months of validation for my son to completely conquer his anxiety. Each day it got less and less, and eventually it was gone altogether.
Diving more into SAY WHAT YOU SEE will help the child feel heard and understood. From there, kids can stop trying to prove that their feelings are valid, and they can open up to your guidance.
This is so important.
Without validation, anxious kids cannot hear anything you are saying.
There were times when I was overwhelmed with my son’s constant anxiety over going to school that I defaulted to saying things like…”You’re fine. Just stop crying about it.”
This was a hard lesson for me because it broke trust.
He was telling me there were alarm bells going off inside his head; I was telling him to ignore them. Or worse, acting like they didn’t exist at all.
When trust is broken, kids will continue to try and meet their needs, except it might come in ways parents don’t like very much: lying, aggression or looking for another place to belong.
He finally conquered it.
In the end, it was validation that changed everything for my son.
He’d walk down the stairs in the morning and proudly, yet calmly, announce this:
“I don’t like going to school.”
I’d nod and say, “Yeah! You’d rather stay home!”
And then…he’d carry on, eat breakfast, get dressed, pack his bag and go to school. It was as simple as that.
Hey there! I’m Lauren, a licensed Language of Listening parent coach. For the past several years, I’ve mastered simple ways to solve everyday parenting challenges. If you’re interested in learning more golden nuggets of parenting that use this simple framework, click the image below to subscribe. I’ll see you inside!