Back-to-School: When Transitions Are Tough

Back to school advice on transitions

It took a while before I realized what was going on.

Why were we suddenly back in a land I thought we’d left behind, with siblings on edge and constant provoking, teasing, pushing one another’s buttons? Why was one child’s skin suddenly so thin, why were the tantrums back, why the regression to some oddities and tics we hadn’t seen in a while? You’d think something big was going on and—oh. Yeah.

School’s starting. A new teacher. A new grade. New expectations and old ones that have never been easy. For kids with learning and/or behavioral challenges, knowing that school is looming—whether they “like” school or not—can bring on not just anxiety, but a whole pile of, well, stuff. 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.

And, yeah, I’m keeping the details of our “stuff” to ourselves. But if you’ve got stuff, then like me, you’re probably looking around, going, hey! I thought we were done with this stuff! I thought we’d moved on to other stuff! And then suddenly realizing—nope. When big changes are afoot, all the stuff comes out in force.

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, and got some great advice that boiled down to this: First, get your own stuff 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 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. Karen Smith, TK, used a phrase I love: “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—some of this you can just watch and observe and let happen. Laura Richards TK reminded me that “sometimes the negative attention-seeker just needs a hug even thought that’s not what you may be feeling.” If you can give a tolerant, empathetic hug when the easier reaction would be to yell or scold or threaten, then gold star to you—plus the bonus of not spiraling into wherever the stuff you’re dealing with usually takes you.

But (there’s always a “but”) some limits have to hold firm. Limits make kids feel secure. When a pro-level button pusher (perhaps sensing weakness) appears dressed for dinner out in clothing that’s 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, and full and total empathetic been there done that too if you can’t quite.

Susan Cook Bonifant TK 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).  Some of that depends on what kinds of stuff you’re dealing with. Some families might reach for scripts and schedules and charts and social stories, others for learned anxiety-coping strategies, still others might work with the school to help ease the transition in various ways. One strategy, though, that will help anyone: allow extra time.  Jen Levine TK pointed out that kids pick up on our time stress. Allowing lots of time means we can 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 week of school.

You’ve probably got tough transition ideas and strategies to share, and here I find myself in a quandary. How to get us talking? If you’re reading this in your email, you could pop through to my website and comment, or you could comment on the post on Facebook. If you’re already on my website, the comments beckon, as might a return to Facebook if you came from there. I promise to hang out in both spaces while I’m figuring out this game. Could you email me? Well, yeah, but then how will everyone ELSE see your idea? I could put it another email, you say. Again, a but—but what if I drown in back-to-school madness and don’t do another “weekly” email until mid-September? Could happen.  No, the comments and Facebook are better and more fun.

More resources:

Middle School Mondays: Hey, Parents, Everything’s Going to Be Okay! from Braden Bell, an author and middle school teacher.  This may not help your child’s tough transition, but it might help yours! Highlights:  “Your child will have some wonderful triumphs; your child will also mess up royally. That’s okay because, if you let it, this experience will teach her something” and “Friends will inexplicably change and do unpredictable things that will baffle and hurt your child. This brings us to one of the most challenging aspects of middle school: it’s filled with middle school students, and these children are going to be every bit as insecure and unstable as your child will be at times, and will thus act, not like mature, kind adults, but like immature adolescents. Sadly, Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Malala, and Abraham Lincoln are not on the friend menu.”

When the Transition to School is Anything But Smooth from The SELF Project: Social-Emotional Learning Foundations Some simple, straightforward advice that you can apply to any age—remind kids that trouble with transitions is normal, even if everyone doesn’t have it, and set aside a piece of every non-school day for some release that your child enjoys. like coloring or shooting baskets.

Want a book to help talk about worry? Try Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes (which may frustrate you if “just stop worrying” isn’t on the agenda) or go the direct route with What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety (What to Do Guides for Kids), which comes with lots of references from parents of kids who really struggle with anxiety.