For some kids, heading back to school is met with eager excitement. And for others, it’s the source of much anticipation and dread. Just the thought of all that newness at once can throw some kids into a tailspin – a new class, a new classroom, new teachers, new friends, old friends, new subjects, new books – all of this together can feel quite overwhelming. As a parent, it’s often a full-time job numbing our own anxiety about sending our child off to school let alone dealing with theirs.
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I still remember those nervous butterflies in my tummy as I lay awake in bed the night before the new school year wondering. Will the new teacher be nice or mean? Will there be friends in my class? Where will I sit for lunch? What if I miss the bus? What if I get lost? Will the work be too hard for me? Where will I go if I need help? How will I fit in?
What’s happening in the brain when we’re anxious?
When we don’t know what to expect from a new environment it is totally understandable to feel a little anxious. Anxiety is when our brains and bodies become really busy finding all the evidence to support the things that we worry about.
Our brain is so clever that if we ask it to, it can neatly line up all of our bad experiences in the past, and make up some new ones – which can feel like a constant pile of washing that we never actually get on top of. Most of the time this is very unhelpful because just about everything that we worry about is pointless. The job of worrying takes up a lot of our time and energy and can really take the fun out of things for everyone.
Have you noticed that trying to soothe your child’s worry with a simple, “You will be fine” or a, “There is nothing to worry about” falls on deaf ears? This is because their little brains have told them everything to the contrary.
As parents we sometimes find ourselves in a kind of tug of war as our child convinces us of all the evidence they have to support their worry and we attempt to convince them of all the reasons that it will all be okay. Trying to convince a child that they needn’t worry just means the worry stays locked up inside them. It then often leaks out in other ways such as headaches, tears, sulking, stomach aches, perfectionism and anger.
Instead of, “You are over-thinking it” try, “Tell me about it”
As parents, when we dial down our kids worry with, “It will be okay”, we are hoping to make their worry smaller so that they won’t have to be miserable, but as we push away their worries we are also leaving them to cope with it all alone. Being alone with their worry is really scary for kids.
Instead of telling them not to worry, try encouraging them to tell you more about their worry by asking, “Tell me about it”. It might feel strange, like by asking this you are potentially making the worry bigger but the opposite is true. When they can tell you all about their worry, it means they are no longer alone. Just by listening you are lightening their load with your understanding.
Instead of, “There is nothing to worry about” try, “That sounds scary”
When your child tells you all about their worry it will probably be irresistible not to interrupt with all the reasons why they don’t need to worry. You will feel the almost magnetic pull to leap in with suggestions about how to make the worry go away, perhaps even listing all the ways that the problem can be resolved. Stop. Breathe. Instead, try calmly continuing to listen.
Instead of, “It will be okay” try, “It makes sense that you feel worried”
Our urge to take the worry away for our kids is pretty strong. Most of the time we are in full fix-it mode because we love them and it’s difficult to see them suffer. If we are honest, it might feel like we have failed in some way when our child remains stuck in worry.
So suggesting that you ‘agree’ with the worry might sound totally bonkers. But try it. When you are done listening to their worry, let your child know that it makes sense to be worried about those things, because they sound scary. In other words, “It makes sense”.
You could even share some of your own stories about when you have felt the same way, like when you started a new job, or perhaps when you missed the bus as a child. Letting your child know that it’s understandable to feel worried means they don’t need to ‘worry about being worried’ and you get it.
Instead of, “Here – this is what you should do” try, “Okay, what shall we do about this?”
When you have flushed out all the scary feelings by listening, your child will feel a whole lot more connected to you and the worry will seem less scary. You could even give the worry a name like ‘Mr Jitters’ so that you can continue to talk about it when it shows up. Like, “So Mr Jitters was a bit bossy today?”
When it feels like you have heard about most of the worry, try catching your child’s eye and asking, “So what are we going to do here?” Then wait. When a child is feeling alone and afraid, that little word ‘we’ feels like a lifeline. Pause for moment and let your child come up with some ideas about what might help with the worry. Agree with their ideas, and offer one or two more for their consideration. Give your child the power to choose which ideas to try. This way they are in the driver’s seat and you are their support person.
Kids who worry a lot are normally incredibly good at coming up with their own solutions if they have someone who stands with them and understands the scary feelings. Reassuring your child that you care for them, are prepared to listen to them, have felt similar feelings all confirm that they are not alone. Worry only grows in isolation. It shrinks when we face it together. So next time instead of saying ‘there is no need to worry’ make a cup of tea, sit at the end of the bed and listen and help them find their plan.
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