The Back to School Butterflies:
10 Tips To Help Your Child
Don MacMannis, Ph.D. & Debra Manchester MacMannis, MSW
Perhaps you’re one of the lucky parents whose kids couldn’t wait to go back to school. Unfortunately, lots of kids have a hard time approaching the first day or don’t settle in for weeks, and for many different reasons. Some starting Kindergarten are just plain scared of the unknown. Others (over 6.5 million kids each year in the U.S.) are heading off to a new school where they lack friends or familiarity.
Lots of kids know what they don’t like about school. They’ve been there, done that. They have to get up early, sit in classrooms and do what the teacher tells them to do all day long–including too much homework when they go home. Although everyone agrees that getting a good education is essential, that doesn’t mean that many kids don’t hate the loss of freedom that goes with it, especially after coming off of a carefree, fun-filled summer vacation.
So how can parents prepare kids who are anxious, shy or afraid of anything new? Here are 10 tips to start your child’s school year off on a positive note:
1. Ask how your child is feeling about going back to school. Some parents make the mistake of either filling their child with their own fears, or telling them not to be scared or upset. The first step is to listen to your child’s own thoughts and feelings. Ask questions and keep listening.
2. Offer empathy and reassurance. If your child seems upset, share that “Lots of kids feel sad or scared. Are you feeling something like that? I can understand how this might feel like a big step.” Once feelings are on the table and normalized, your child can more easily hear your words of encouragement and reassurance that everything’s going to be okay.
3. Help your children view change as an opportunity. Even though it’s normal to have uncomfortable feelings of anticipation, those butterflies in their tummies can also playfully be viewed as “excitement” instead of just anxiety.
4. Talk about your own experiences around transitions. It’s helpful for parents to teach by example. Share not only your childhood triumphs, but also times that, even as an adult, you overcame your butterflies of anxiety and are happy you confronted a necessary change.
5. Program positive thinking. As much as possible, scout out the school, teacher or classmates ahead of time so your child can mentally rehearse what things will be like. Have them close their eyes at bedtime and imagine how their experience will be fun and positive.
6. Re-establish routines. Providing a sense of security gives children a firm foundation for tackling the unknown. Keep things loving and positive, but return to a predictable routine. Sleep is essential to reducing fears and irritability. Spend a few days before the first day of school getting your child back on a sleep schedule that allows them to wake up refreshed and ready.
7. Create a ritual of planning. Create a checklist of things to do ahead of time, including purchases, and make it a fun adventure. You can also avoid last-minute panic by packing the backpack and laying out the first day’s “special” clothes the night before.
8. Coach them to reach out. Children often wait for other kids to initiate contact with them rather than making the first move. Remind them that others are feeling anxious too. Encourage your child to smile, say “Hi” to those they know, and reach out and introduce themselves to new kids. The song, Reach Out, is a perfect fit to emphasize and support these ideas. It comes with free coloring and activity pages and can all be downloaded from the website at KidsEps.com .
9. Deal with your own feelings. Facing and constructively expressing your own feelings about your child’s transition helps to clear some family tension that could otherwise affect them adversely. You may need to have a good cry about how quickly your child is growing up or how much you will miss them.
10. Celebrate the day! How about a special healthy breakfast and end of the day celebration for their accomplishment? Give yourself a pat on the back as well. Given that the only thing constant in life is change, realize that you are helping your kids build emotional muscles, overcome challenges and thrive in the future.
Don MacMannis, Ph.D. & Debra Manchester MacMannis, MSW are a husband-wife team – at home and at the office, they provide nationwide lectures on families and serve as co-directors of The Family Therapy Institute of Santa Barbara. Integrating decades of psychotherapy experience with the latest family and brain research, they co-authored How’s Your Family Really Doing? 10 Keys to a Happy Loving Family. Dr. MacMannis is also the creator of Kids’ EPs and Kids’ EPs Workbook. More information, self-assessment tools and their weekly blog can be found at HowsYourFamily.com and information on Kids’ Eps can be found at www.kidseps.com.