Taming the Jitters Before They Start
Summer is over. My children slowly deflate with each pool toy that is put away until next year. They dread what’s coming – school. No more late summer nights playing in the yard until their tired little legs can’t run anymore. No more chasing the ice-cream truck down the block. No more sleepovers with friends, and saddest to our older two girls, no more sleeping in until lunchtime. Worst of all, I start to see the dreaded school’s-almost-here-zombie-eyes-from-not-sleeping-and-worrying-too-much look plastered all over my children’s faces.
With all these adjustments to their cozy routine and schedule, predictably comes the “Before The School Year Jitters.” All three of our children experience these jitters at different levels. We get everything from simple nervousness about what teacher they will get all the way to tummy aches and serious insomnia starting about August 1st until around the second week of school, once they finally get settled in. It’s difficult to find ways to ease their little minds, especially when their anxiety is something I cannot talk them down from.
To get some advice, I spoke with Dr. Ron Craker, parent coach to families with young children, about some ways to help ease this transition from summer bliss to school year chaos.
Dr. Craker says the key to alleviating your child’s anxiety is to learn what makes your child feel comfortable once they have adjusted to the school routine.
“The key to the solution is what makes your child relax come the second week of September,” Dr. Craker says. “Have a talk with your child, and instead of asking why she gets nervous or can’t sleep, ask her what’s different after the second week of school that helps her feel more relaxed. We know anxiety is a mind game we play with ourselves.”
T.I.F to F.I.T
Dr. Craker offers an easy acronym to help parents better understand what feeds into our child’s anxiety. “We fuel anxiety into a “T.I.F.” by having certain Thoughts, Images or Imaginings, and certain Feelings that turn fleeting “butterflies in the stomach” into more serious anxieties that stop us from doing things.”
He goes on to explain that parents often help fuel their child’s anxiety by asking the wrong question. We’ve all been there; we want to know the cause of our child’s fears, so we prod and continually ask him or her what’s wrong in order to get to the root of the problem. Dr. Craker says that by taking this approach we actually keep the child fixated on those negative thoughts, images and feelings. “Instead of asking ourselves as parents, ‘How do I deal with the before-school-year jitters?’ a better question is, ‘How do I tap into the calm feelings kids have after the first couple of weeks of school.’
As Dr. Craker explains, the answer to this question can begin to change everything, flipping TIF into a FIT child who is ready for the transition to school. “Helping your child tap into the Feeling, Images, and Thoughts they possess when they are feeling confident about school is the key,” he says.
So, how do you go about getting your child from TIF to FIT? Dr. Craker suggests sitting down and saying the following to your child:
“Let’s pretend it’s early October. You have been in school for a few weeks; you feel confident, relaxed, prepared, and you’re enjoying school. What things about school or what we’re doing at home helps you feel confident and relaxed?”
While you have this discussion with your anxious kid, Dr. Craker says to have the child focus on the feelings, images and thoughts that are positive and instill a confident, relaxed feeling. He notes, “You will probably find your child’s answers revolve around one of three issues: Being confident about the environment of the school, the social life of school, or the transition of going to school (the rhythm of getting ready, going to school, coming home and studying).
Putting Yourself in Their Shoes
Understanding where our kids are coming from isn’t difficult to do, even if it has been a while since we’ve done the whole back-to-school routine ourselves. Nevertheless, we’ve all been in similar situations, even as adults.
“Think about yourself for a moment,” says Dr. Craker. “Have you ever had to go to a conference in a strange hotel or tried to meet friends at a very large, crowded event where you haven’t been before? I guarantee this is what you do: You prepare for the ‘Transition’; you think a lot about it before you go. You spend extra time planning what to wear, getting a GPS map to the place, double checking the schedule, and so on. When you get there, you need to ‘own the environment.’ You stop just inside the entrance to the large hall and scan the whole place. You scope where the coffee table is, how big, hot, noisy, or cold the room is. You get your bearings. Only then can your brain shift focus to the social demands of the environment. Now you can find your friends, meet people you didn’t know before, or walk the long way around so you wouldn’t have to face the person you don’t really want to talk to. Each year when your child starts school, it is the same for them. Usually there is one of these three issues (the transition, the environment or the social aspect) that is the most difficult for your child to manage, and the clue will be in the answers they give about what is now making them more confident about school.”
Practical Steps and Ideas
So now that you know what anxieties are most bothering your child, how do you begin to address them and help alleviate their worries?
Dr. Craker says that if the issue is with transitions, then you can proactively start moving to your school-day schedule early: “Go through the getting-up routine, and instead of getting on the bus, plan a trip to the library so you actually get up, eat, grab a backpack and leave the house.”
If your child is worried about the school environment itself, Dr. Craker recommends going to any school open houses or walk-around days offered before class begins. “Even better, call the school and ask for permission to come in and walk around the school when it is quiet and mostly empty,” Dr. Craker suggests. “Meeting the child’s teacher ahead of time can be a great help, too. Even if your child has gone to the same school for five straight years, it doesn’t matter. If a child needs to “own the space” before they feel comfortable, they need to do this.”
There are ways to help your kids feel better about making friends and reconnecting with their classmates. Dr. Craker says, “You can start to make reconnections with favorite classmates by intentionally getting the kids together for play dates, meeting at the school playground, or taking a school walk-through together.”
Your Homework: Focus on Strengths
The key to a successful back-to-school transition with minimal anxiety is focusing on the positive. “Take your parental focus off the anxiety, and put it on the strengths your child feels when they are confident and relaxed about school,” recommends Dr. Craker. “This change of focus will also help you keep your own anxiety at bay. You can even share an example with your child of a time when you had “butterflies” about something you had to do, but did it anyway, with confidence, and how proud you felt about it.”
Just like you, around the beginning of August, when I start to see the dreaded school’s-almost-here-zombie-eyes-from-not-sleeping-and-worrying-too-much, I’m going to pull out some of Dr. Craker’s ideas and approach the topic with a much less worried stance on my part. I’m going to be remain positive and calm like he suggests and try to pull out of my girls what brings them comfort, not what or why they are afraid.
We may have butterflies this fall when school starts again, but hopefully – no zombie eyes.
Published in the August edition of “The Family Magazine of Michiana”
Photo By Brittani Renee