It’s happening again.
Every year, just as school starts, we find ourselves in a place I thought we’d left behind. The kids on edge, constantly provoking, teasing and pushing one another’s buttons. One child’s skin so thin she might burst. Tantrums, oddities and tics return. What’s up? You’d think something big was going on and—oh. Yeah.
School’s started. A new teacher. A new grade. New expectations and old ones that have never been easy. It’s a challenging time for all kids, but for kids with anxiety or learning and/or behavioral challenges, the start of school—whether they “like” school or not—can bring back stuff you thought they’d long since left behind. Stuff you thought you were done with, stuff you haven’t dealt with in a while. Whatever that “stuff” is in your family. If you know what I mean, you know what I mean. Stuff is back. This is a longer than usual letter that might help you find your way as it runs its course—again. I wrote about this last year, but it never goes away.
So what do you do, when the back-to-school transition is, shall we say, extra-challenging? I reached out to parents of kids with stuff of all kinds on Facebook last year, and got some great advice that boiled down to this: First, get your game face on. Next, get ready to help a kid who needs some extra care right now—but may be “asking” for it by doing everything possible to push you away or drive you crazy.
First step, as so many friends reminded me, is to get a grip on your own reaction to the “stuff.” Are you infuriated? Frustrated? Projecting a whole lifetime of your own stuff onto your child or you family or your future? (Been there.) Do whatever you do with your own emotions, but don’t let them take charge of however you handle the action at the dinner table, the office supply store or whatever. One mother used a phrase I loved: “I try to stay calm. I try not to feed the beast.”
Don’t panic, said my advisors, and don’t feel like you have to interfere every time you hear the old patterns repeating. Some of this you can just watch and observe and let happen. Allow siblings work out their anxieties on one another as long as they aren’t drawing blood or making things worse; they can be more tolerant of each other’s foibles than you think. Don’t respond to the frustrated grunts over homework or shoe-tying or zippers unless you’ve been actively called. If your child is shrieking her way through the house in the morning, mad with panic over an unmade lunch or a lost book, bite your tongue. She’s releasing tension (and that “helpful” reminder that she should have done all this last night isn’t, not one bit).
When you do find yourself sucked into the storm, walk softly. Respond rather than react. “Sometimes,” said another parent, “the negative attention-seeker just needs a hug even though that’s not what you may be feeling.” If you can give a tolerant, empathetic squeeze when the easier reaction would be to yell or scold or threaten, then gold star to you—plus the bonus of not spiraling into the darkness of guilt, remorse and repercussions over unleashing your own frustrations on your kid.
But (there’s always a “but”) no matter how much your child has on her plate, some limits need to hold firm. Limits make kids feel secure. When a pro-level button pusher (perhaps sensing weakness) appears dressed for dinner out in pants that are more hole than cloth and declares that “you’re not the boss of my clothes,” your Spidey-sense may tell you that this is bait. The trick is to take the bait off the hook—to enforce your household rules without going down the emotional wormhole. Double gold star if you can pull it off and still enjoy your dinner afterwards, and full and total empathetic been there done that too if you can’t quite.
One experienced mother raised a good point—“it would be strange if it wasn’t a stressful time.” Which brings us to step two—helping the child manage the stress (with no illusion that it will go away, or that it won’t happen again). Most of the mechanics here depend on what kinds of stuff you’re dealing with. Some families might reach for scripts and schedules and charts and social stories and others for learned anxiety-coping strategies, while others might work with the school to help ease the transition in various ways.
Some strategies, though, are universal (and help kids who aren’t unusually challenged as well. Allow extra time. Kids pick up on our time stress. Instead of pushing the limits, take it slow, and accommodate the inevitable unexpected. It’s not easy, but trust me. No one ever said “darn, I’m sorry we got such an early start” during the first month of school.
Start as slow as you can. Many teachers and coaches are trying to pack as much into a fall season as possible—and that means clubs are getting organized, commitments requested, practices scheduled and the frenzy beginning. Let’s hit the ground running, people! Get ready! Practice Play Meet Join Repeat! Oof. For children with special needs, or even those who are more reserved, it’s hard to plunge right in—and equally hard to join in late. Hitting the ground running can mean some kids aren’t going to run at all.
You can try to hold the door open on some activities for just a little longer. If you ask, many adults are willing to hold a mental place in activities your children might be interested in, to offer a second chance to sign-up, and not to nail down roles and jobs in the first week, which makes joining in later harder.
If a sport or activity can’t wait, resist scheduling anything else (not even super-fun things that take advantage of the beautiful fall weather). No back-to-school shopping stop on the way home from practice, no outing with friends. Protect the down time your child has, even if you might like to fit something else in.
Listen to your child. I still remember my daughter, faced with a play date I’d planned after school on an early day of first grade, wailing “but I’m so tired!” If your kids are in an after school program, try to make sure they’re allowed down time; if they come directly home from school, make sure some afternoons stay clear.
There are so many fantastic opportunities for our children; I too wish I could take a cartooning class and learn to fence, throw pottery, weld metal and speak Mandarin. But too much is still too much, and a slower start as well as generally less packed days makes fall so much easier. (For more on scheduling, check out The Sane Family’s Guide to Scheduling on my resources page.)
Above all, be gentle on your children, and yourself, as we hurtle headlong into new schedules and a new season. Try to ease into it where you can, and if you can’t, follow a long day up with a quiet night. Get some rest, breathe deep and take care of each other. This will all become routine soon enough. Just in time for the holidays.