Somehow, someway, the summer is almost over. The upside, for me at least, is the return of consistent child care and routines that, while exhausting, provide much needed structure. But transitioning back into the school year is not always a piece of cake, especially for kids going to a new school, or starting school for the first time. If you have the kind of kid with whom you hold your breath after suggesting anything new, you’re probably already bracing yourself for what could possibly be a difficult few days or weeks. Even the kiddos who are usually super flexible or good with change can find themselves having “big feelings” during a moment like this.
Why? Because change is hard. Transitions are hard. New things bring up both fear and excitement, but the former can often take over, as our brains are wired to look for dangers. Adults feel that way, too, but we have our friends to vent to, our mindfulness apps to dabble with, our “Mom Grass” to smoke (it’s not really even weed, people, but somehow it works).
For your children, you are all of these things rolled into one, and you, safe space extraordinaire, are going to hear about all the big, tough feelings and bear the brunt of their moods. It is normal, even expected, that children of all ages may have some extra feels this fall. Here’s how you can attempt to get yourself and your child through this tricky moment in one piece:
1. Preparation, preparation, preparation!
We consulted with toddler experts Kristin Gallant and Deena Margolin who run the account Big Little Feelings, who put it like this: “Uncertainty and random changes can lead to fear and panic, which means more clinging and melting down. When we help our kids know what to expect, it helps them feel safe and makes the transition away from you/home easier.”
The first thing to do is to get your own feelings about the transition straight. Don’t love your kid’s new assigned teacher? Have some anxiety about whether they’ll make friends this year? That’s all cool, but process it before you talk to your kid about the change so that you can do your best to keep your apprehension to yourself. You don’t need to sugarcoat or lie, but if you’re feeling worried, your kid will surely pick up on it.
The second thing is to talk about what school might be like so kids can begin to process fears and feelings they might have. For young children or children with less language, our friends at Big Little Feelings recommend reading books and watching shows about what happens at school (Daniel Tiger has a great one). They also recommend going over what will happen on school days (“We will eat breakfast and get dressed at home. Then, we will go in the car, and I will drop you off at school. We will give hugs and kisses, then I will leave to go to work, and you will stay at school with your teachers and other kids to play. I will pick you up after rest time, and I can’t wait to see you.”). Be specific and answer questions. Draw pictures.
When you expect anxiety, see if you can get a sneak peek at the school and/or teachers before the first day. Many schools, even middle and high schools, do tour days, where you can see your classrooms and practice moving from place to place. On request, preschool and elementary schools would likely send a picture of your child’s teacher ahead of time, or make special allowances to have a nervous kiddo visit for a few minutes during teacher prep days.
2. Listen and accept.
Try your best to listen without judgment or immediate problem-solving (that one’s hard!). Deena and Kristin explain that when it comes to little kids, “Pushing them and trying to change feelings makes them panic, cling, and resist more. The more you can accept their feelings — without trying to change them — the more secure and safe you’re helping them feel. You can respond with something like, ‘I hear you’re feeling sad/scared/mad about going back to school. We’ve spent a lot of time together at home. It’s OK to have big feelings about going to school.’” When trying to assuage your kid, they pointed out three main things to avoid:
- Toxic positivity:
“You’ll LOVE school. All your friends will be there, you’ll have fun!”
- Minimizing feelings:
“Don’t cry. Don’t be scared. There’s nothing scary about school.”
- Comparing kids:
“Look, Justin’s having fun out there. And see? Maya is smiling, she’s happy at school.”
3. Say goodbye with confidence.
When I think of getting my kid through a hard transition, I imagine one of those moving walkways in the airport. You want to move through the separation thoughtfully but with confidence and continual momentum. According to Deena and Kristin, “When we waiver, linger, and hesitate to leave, we cue our toddler’s brain to say, ‘Mom seems unsure. I knew something was wrong here! Panic!’” If you get stuck at a certain point on the first day, add some momentum at that step, for example, asking the teacher to take their hand at the gate as you let them go, meeting a buddy at your car door so they can walk in together, or choosing an activity in the classroom that they get to go to first thing if they can get through the door. You can also give kids a “transitional object” to help them keep going and remember you love them and will return for them.
The folks at Big Little Feelings suggest things even as simple as a little love note, or drawing a heart on your kid’s hand (“Whenever you miss me, you can touch this heart on your hand and remember that our hearts are always connected, even when we’re apart.”). Stones or pom-poms for their pockets, or a watch for an older child to track when you will be there to pick them up. Oh, and at least for those first days, try and be a few minutes early for pickup so they don’t have to wait and worry.
4. Pile on the compassion.
You may be worn out from thinking about all this or emotionally fragile after a series of hard drop-offs, so being extra kind to yourself and your kid through this time is super important. Don’t forget to remind your brain, in the face of potential crying and distress, that your kid is OK. Deena and Kristin suggest that some extra after-school TLC is in order for any child during the first days or weeks of a new transition. Going through a big change that they didn’t really have a say in can make kids feel pretty powerless. Give them extra chances to be in charge or get what they want, like a few extra minutes of getting to be the queen who bosses you around in imaginative play. Keep afternoons or evenings low-key, and don’t be ashamed to take a trip to the ice cream shop as many times as you need to.
It’d be nice if our kids accepted everything new they were presented with with ease. But then, they wouldn’t be human. As the saying goes, expect the best, prepare for the worst, and seek the help of your child’s teachers and school if a troubling pattern starts emerging.
And when in doubt, there’s always Mom Grass.