If you’re anything like I was when my children were young – those words filled me with anxiety.
I needed my child to be happy at school so that I could feel okay about it.
So how to respond in a way that’s actually helpful?
It’s so easy to get caught up in our own anxiety that our response is actually about trying to calm our own anxiety – rather than responding to him.
Here’s some of the tactics we parents use in our attempt for ‘smooth entry’.
Parent: Unhelpful Tactic 1
We try to do is convince him he thinks /feels otherwise.
‘Of course you want to go to school – you love school.’
Parent Unhelpful Tactic 2
Change the subject.
‘Oh, look. There’s Johnny. Let’s go to the park together.’
Parent Unhelpful Tactic 3
‘Your sister loves school.’
Parent Unhelpful Tactic 4
Try to reason.
‘You’ll be home in just a few hours.’
‘But last week you said you really wanted to go to school.’ (Maybe he did – but that was last week –not now!)
Parent Unhelpful Tactic 5
‘Be a good boy and go to school and I’ll buy you an ice-cream on the way home.’
Parent Unhelpful Tactic 6
‘Big boys all go to school.’
These tactics aren’t helpful because:
* Your child’s not feeling heard or ‘feeling felt’.
(When his emotions aren’t calmed, he won’t be able to figure out how he can handle the challenge).
* When he experiences his parents ignoring what he’s experiencing, over time he might begin to doubt or ignore his own inner experiences / thoughts and feelings.
* If he can’t share these worrying emotions with you because you ignore / divert him then he might start thinking that he can’t share other concerns him with you.
* He might feel resentful towards a sibling (just because she likes school, why should that mean he does?)
* And if he figures that bribes get him rewards, you’re creating a situation where he’s more likely to complain about more things. (‘Mentality: ‘The more I complain the more ice-creams I get!’)
* Shaming a child might get the immediate result you want, but it means he’ll just be stifling his worries, rather than learning he’s got a supportive mum / dad who will listen and help him figure out what’s needed.
So what can be helpful?
* Be aware that, even if you’ve been careful about what you say, your child ‘reads’ you – your body language, tone of voice, muscle tension, facial expression. If he senses you’re tense/ worried/ anxious/ don’t want to ‘let your baby go’ – he’ll cooperate with you – and give you the behaviour that you are subconsciously ‘asking him for’. This means making sure you’re settled and calm about the situation. (And sometimes one parent copes better at the school gate than the other parent – try to plan it that way if possible).
* Respond to what your child’s experiencing – not to your own needs. It’s so easy for us to so want for it to be okay, that we’re trying to soothe him for our own sake, rather than being tuned in to what’s actually helpful for him.
* Respond to his words.‘ So you don’t think you want to go to school today. Tell me more.’ Often just having a chance to talk about it, knowing someone’s really listening, may be all he needs to do. And maybe there IS something that’s not okay, that he’ll need your support to sort out.
* Empathise. Notice his body language and facial expression as well as his words. Try to ‘get into his skin’ and feel what he’s feeling. Naming the emotion helps him to ‘name’, ‘claim’ and ‘tame’ the emotion.
‘You’re feeling sad/ worried about going to school?’ If you name the emotion, he’s more likely to have a sense that his experience is normal / understandable to others and this makes it easier for him to deal with overwhelming emotions. He’s more likely to calm down when he ‘feels felt’.
Our culture tends to give a message ‘big boys don’t cry’ but our tears when we are upset are chemically different to the tears we cry when we peel an onion. Our ‘upset tears’ contain stress hormones – so when we’ve ‘had a good cry’, we feel better / more able to cope. Having said that, there’s a time (Like going into the school gate) when tears most probably aren’t going to be helpful. Time to be listened to beforehand can reduce risk of tears at the gate.And avoid expressions like ‘Don’t cry.’ (All he’ll hear is ‘Cry’!)
Even young children can learn to use focusing on their breath to contain themselves. (Great at the dentist or doctor’s) Remind him of something that will be encouraging or reassuring. (‘I’ll be right here to meet you at home time.’)
* Some children battle to be away from the parent. Some token object to ‘keep safe for me’ or ‘so that you know I’m thinking of you’ that he can tuck into his pocket can give him something tangible to feel and reassure himself at times when he might need to calm himself during the day.
* Giving a choice can be helpful. Perhaps as you get close to the school your child becomes increasingly clingy. ‘Would you like me to walk to the classroom door with you or do you want to say goodbye in the hall?’ Not going to school isn’t being offered as an option – but, by making a choice, your child doesn’t feel powerless in the situation
* Daily transition times – home to school – can be stressful. Do what you can to minimize stress, like having everything ready beforehand, know where the car keys are, leaving five minutes extra early. A calm start to the day can make all the difference.
* Keeping still (comparatively) and concentrating and cooperating all morning is stressful for young children. Plan for a healthy breakfast to start the day and an opportunity to work off a bit of energy. (Can you walk to school?) Likewise, time to work off energy on returning home is needed.
In my years as school teacher/ principal I found that Monday morning blues after the first weekend is very common, even with some children who started school happily for the first few days. Forewarned is forearmed. Be extra aware of what might be needed after the weekend so that you can respond helpfully before meltdown happens!
I’d love to hear your experiences.