“I’m not going and you can’t make me!”
“Please! Can’t you just homeschool me?!”
These are often the battles many parents are fighting during the first few days of school.
Anxiety, panic and dread have become increasingly common among students. Who can blame them with the constant barrage of academic, athletic and social pressures. Parents are often fond of the “Back in my day…”-monologue; but, let’s face it. Most adults would get eaten alive in today’s school settings.
What I am seeing more and more are a child or adolescents refusal to engage as the reality of school draws nearer and nearer. Many just simply freeze and shut down. They refuse to get out of bed, go through their morning routine, won’t get in the car or out of the car when it comes time to exit the vehicle. Or they will get in the doors only to wind up in the counselor’s or nurse’s office begging and pleading for their parent/guardian to come pick them up. Worse yet, is when a child appears to be doing fine from the outside only to discover they have been quietly failing and either lying or avoiding the issue.
For some it’s both internal and external pressures – fear of making a mistake or doing something embarrassing and being rejected, the thought of having to talk to strangers, the general dread that comes with new situations/places/people, for some it centers around bullying, others it’s the fear of competition in their club/activity/sport, still others the increasing workload and expectations. And we haven’t even touched yet on puberty or the growing possibility of a school shooting.
And for a lot of parents we wither didn’t deal with it on this level or we suffered through in silence without much support from our parents. Now, as families have become more kid-centered and emotionally supportive…what can you do?
Here are 6 tips to help:
- Know that worries are common
- Look after the basics
- Hear them out
- Try to avoid cliche reassurance and focus instead on problem-solving
- Team up and get creative
- Know when to call in the big guns
1. Worries are normal! Everyone has fears and worries. It’s a standard part of being human. Most of the time people just want to feel heard and understood, which we’ll get to in Tip 3. But the starting place is to know that our emotions aren’t a bad thing. We have a Spidey-sense for a reason. It’s a protective measure. Sometimes it’s a little too protective and misfires. But, I always say, “We all have emotions. Good luck trying not to have them!” Therefore our children have emotions and among them will be stress, fear and anxiety.
2. Look after the basics. Make sure as a parent that you take care of stabilizing the basic needs of your children. Food, shelter and clothing. But, as parents we automatically strive to do that in all our Pinterest-glory. Beyond that, our families require structure and order in order to feel a sense of control and safety. Try to provide these things in a flexible, caring manner. This recent post on preparing the return to school helps to outline the areas to focus on – eating, sleeping, clothing, medications, electronics.
3. Hear them out. Think about your kids when they are/were little and wanted to tell you a story or one of their never-ending, no-punchline jokes. All they wanted was to have your attention and have you listen to them. That never changes even into adulthood. Being able to get on their level both physically and emotionally and hear what they have to say will help them empty out all of the pent up emotions. It’s important to not shut down their emotions, minimize them or allow your emotions to get out of control in response.
4. Focus on problem-solving. While you want to allow them the space to vent, you don’t want to use cliches in an effort to reassure them. Things like, “It’ll be fine” or “everyone gets nervous about school”. Try to avoid answering their reassuring questions, which will create a cycle of co-dependence on you to rescue them from their fears and anxieties. Instead, ask them questions about how they can overcome their fears. The younger the child, the more likely they are to respond with “I don’t know”. Which leads us to Tip#5.
5. Get creative. In talking with your child about how to overcome their fears, help them think of creative solutions. Let them know that they can count on you to help and that you are with them in the fight against anxiety. Ideas like role-playing interactions with strangers, drawing a representation of their emotions, visualizing their school building and walking the halls, practicing relaxation techniques. If the school allows it, video-tape their path from the bus into their locker, from locker to class and so on. This can help them visualize walking the halls. Be willing to get outside of your comfort zone to help them and they will do the same; but, don’t force it upon them if doing so creates significantly more panic. It is important to note that helping your child face their fears and make even the smallest stand is a victory. I often teach clients and their family that even if they attempt to go to school and are able to stay only one minute more than the previous day, that is still a victory and a step in the right direction.
6. Call in the professionals. If your child’s anxiety and panic reach such a state and frequency that they are unable to attend school for multiple days in a row, then it may be beneficial to seek out a counselor and perhaps anti-anxiety medication. Seeking out a therapist who focuses on anxiety and uses Exposure Response Prevention and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to help your child systematically develop positive coping skills for facing their fears can equip them with the proper tools. This series on how to find the right therapist may help. In some cases it may be important to explore alternative options for education when all other avenues have been explored and exhausted.
For those who have struggled with their own anxiety they know how crippling it can be. For those who haven’t dealt with it on a clinically significant level it can often be confusing and frustrating to see our children paralyzed and us as parents paralyzed in our ability to save them. There is a way through! Using some of these tips can help your child to develop skills for their future beyond their education.