Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Encouraging the Discouraged Student

(this article originally appears in 8/16/11 The Review Atlas as a part of my weekly Practical Parenting series)

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I've made it quite clear in my recent articles that I'm thrilled that a new school year is about to begin. But that is because I value learning, crave routine and, really so do my kids. But also I am sick and tired of being treated like the family's personal concierge; Mom what can I do? Mom where can I go? and Mom when's that movie come out?
There is one occasion however that would cause me a great dread this time of year. It has in Septembers past and I remember it quite well. Nothing is more difficult than preparing a child for school who doesn't want to go.

I don't mean like my 6th grader who bemoaned at registration. I'm talking about the child who doesn't separate well from mom or who's anxiety levels are disproportionate for their age.

Because I had a child who literally hid behind my leg for five and a half years, I understand the stress that builds in a mothers heart when you must pry yourself out from your child's clingy grasp and send them on their way. Will they go? Will they throw a fit? Will I be able to leave them? Will the other moms judge me?

If your child is showing signs of stress about the first day, take heart. Strategically days lay ahead and it's possible to spend the time you have encouraging your child alleviating back to school anxiety.

Firstly, young children need your love and support, not ridicule. When your child expresses nervousness let them know you hear them and understand. Avoid statements like "You'll be fine!" or "You better not cry this year!"

Instead gather them in your arms and acknowledge their feelings. Wouldn't you hate it if you confided in a friend and they brushed it off your feelings as trivial? Tell your child, "I know you feel nervous but that's normal" or "I know you don't know who your teacher is yet! But well find her and meet her together."

Sometimes as parents we feel compelled to make everything alright for our children. We don't want our kids to feel nervous so we try to hide or cover up the feeling with our demeaning words or unnatural reactions. But consider this, if we never allow our kids to experience their nervousness then we also eliminate the possibility of allowing the opportunity to be brave. And brave is a good way to feel. But you never experience it unless you welcome cowardice.

Secondly parents, keep your own fears at bay. It's likely if you're aware that your child is nervous you will be as well but behave wisely. Don't let your children overhear you talking on the phone about how afraid you are that they'll cry. Your children need to see your strength.

Don't misrepresent school either. If you know your child loves chocolate cake don't tell them the cafeteria will probably serve it just for them on the first day. We often confuse age for intelligence. Your child might be young but they are old enough to recognize when they are being sold a line. Don't try to downplay the negatives by overstating the positives. This technique almost always backfires. You're child will be doubly disappointed, by you and the school.

Follow your child's cues as well. Don't over talk the situation. If your child is not talking about their fears supress the need to fill the silence with positive rhetoric. Overtalking about fears can be just as stressful for your child. They can pick up if mom is unnaturally talking about an event. When or if they bring up any concerns your job is to listen, acknowledge and encourage.

The first day of school is coming. It's normal to wonder if teachers will be kind, if lunch will be good and if our friends will be there when we arrive. How we as parents handle these fears will teach our children to face the uncertain future with bravery. Why? Because I'm the mom and I said so that's why!

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