Sunday, August 24, 2008

One Year Ago on Awareness * Connection: Helping Your Child with Back to School Anxiety

After today, only one day of summer left for my daughter. Hard to believe it's already slipped by. New beginnings are always a bit of a challenge for her, as they were for me. I've done much better as an adult with work that fluctuates according to the seasons than I did with an on/off schedule like school was. So for me seeing what going back to school is like for Hannah isn't all that big a jump empathy wise. Any of us with two kids, or who've closely observed kids, understands what the research has to say. Children are very different from one another from day one on at least nine different measures of how they react to stimuli and how they regulate their emotions (before learning or parenting has a chance to affect the measures). When our kids have temperament profiles that are quite a bit different from ours, it can take a bit more work to see things from their perspective.

Having someone "get" who we are and what we are experiencing is one of the most important things to us in life. If we are surrounded by people who "get" us, our lives tend to be much happier. We also need at least one supportive relationship in our history in order for us to be relatively psychologically healthy.

It can be a good exercise to think back to a time when we went through something emotionally difficult as a child where our parents or caregivers weren't able to give us the empathy that would have been helpful. Can you remember what that was like? Experiencing a difficult emotion and feeling like you were on your own with it? What could the adult in your life have done or said that might have been helpful? All of us had those experiences where the adult was unable to be as helpful as we could have used. Fortunately, children don't need perfect parenting to do well in life. It is about what the pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnecott called good enough parenting. Our children don't need a completely supportive environment to turn out okay, just enough of one.

On the practical side, what we can do if our child expresses some reservation about school is 1) Listen, 2) Clarify and 3) Run by them your understanding of their experience. Then repeat steps one and two until they feel like you've more or less got it. The easy mistake for us to make is to respond to our children's reservations or distress by giving advice right off the bat. "You don't need to worry. After the first couple days you'll be used to your new teacher." Even if the advice is good advice, if our kids don't sense that we understand how they're feeling, the advice can feel dismissive.

If you've ever had a friend do this to you, you know that's usually not what we hunger for when we're having a hard time with something in life. If you do run through those three steps with your child though, when you do have any practical suggestions for how they might cope, they will be much more able to hear the suggestions and maybe even use a couple of them. What it boils down to often is our being able to be with them in their distress for a moment. See Our Most Important Job post a couple of posts back about this being one of our central challenges as parents.

Remember we don't always need to get this right, but it is worth shooting for an increase in how often we can meet our kids emotionally this way. It is one way to keep the connection open with them that at times can their lifeline.

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