Are you ready to be going “back to school” with your kids?
With the changing season comes a change in the homes of those of you with children in school. Exciting summer trips and adventures with friends are replaced by the routines of homework, after school events, and troubleshooting the ever-more complex social lives of our kids. For some parents the predictable routine of school being in session again is a welcome relief from what one parent told me was an “endless schlep-athon” from summer camp “A” to summer camp “B.” For others, hitting the books again foretells stormy emotional weather patterns. (One parent shared with me that both of his kids were convinced they had been placed in the classrooms of the rottenest teachers on earth.)
How do you prepare for the emotional storms that may pass through your home as your kids navigate the beginning of the school year?
“Mom, this year’s going to suck.” Your normally free-wheeling child has morphed into a kid that growls at the site of his backpack and breaks forth with extemporaneous pouting en route to the bus stop.
“Why?” you say, wondering what can be so bad about learning about the capture of Fort Ticonderoga in the American Revolution or reading A Catcher in the Rye. You begin to daydream of the “easy” life of your school-age kid. “I’d take a day of school over having to face my boss in another meeting,” you tell him.
Your reverie is pleasant enough while it lasts until you’re snapped back to reality staring at you across the kitchen table—your son isn’t pleased with your response. You find yourself now wondering how you should deal with your child’s complaints about snotty classmates, a teacher’s bad breath, and the mean-looking school nurse that makes Groundskeeper Willie seem inviting.
If empathizing with your child’s complaints about school doesn’t sprout forth from a bottomless spring of compassion and understanding, you’re not alone. As a parent, you’re dealing with your own stresses, and getting ready for the new school year isn’t always a perennial favorite.
One thing’s for sure, your response to your own stress and your child’s feelings can either make things smooth or very bumpy.
"The basic challenge is that parents very often speak without understanding how their children receive the message," says Michael Thompson, Ph.D., co-author of Raising Cain. "We often make an assumption that our kids understand. But then we wonder, 'Why didn't they do what I said?'"
You can become an effective communicator with your child of any age by carefully examining your attitudes and habits when it comes to talking and listening in your home.
Your job isn’t to stop your kids from being upset
As a parent leading a busy life, it can feel like you don’t have time for any complaints or negativity in your household. Remember that how you respond to an upset child will teach them how to manage their own emotions. Slow down and listen. Ask follow up questions like, “tell me more about what happened,” or “what upset you the most?” The cadence and pace of your responses as a listener will eventually become contagious to your child. So as you respond with increasing curiosity and calmness your child will slow down too. Instead of just seeing a kid that won’t stop whining, you’ll see that there’s more complexity to her emotions. What started as a rant about school turns into a confession that she feels unprepared in math class. Once you have more specific information you can be more nimble in your offering of support.
Don’t contradict your child immediately even if you know he’s wrong
It’s very easy to want to jump on our kids’ distorted thinking when we feel justified as the parent to correct them. There may be a time for debate and teaching your kids the skills of a good argument. But the problem with not being aware of how much you’re correcting your child is that they can internalize a rigid sense of doubt about aspects of their life that are positive and secure. Good teachers give children a chance to talk about their reasons for thinking a certain way, even if they’re wrong. When your child says, “I’m not going to school today,” try not to respond with “you have to go and that’s final.” Ask, “What’s the biggest problem with school?”
Connect to Wishes Using Fantasy
In my work with couples, I frequently ask the question, “If this situation could be better, how would it feel?” At first reluctant to speculate (“what’s the point in imagining if it’s not real), I persist until they realize the huge potential for relief from our suffering and access to creative solutions if we permit ourselves to dream and wish.
John Gottman, author of Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child teaches parents to become dream-catchers with their kids. It’s not a quick-fix for a tantrum at the grocery store, but over time if you’re a source of inspiration and support when you’re child is struggling with her emotions, your child will realize she doesn’t have to struggle with you. Says Gottman, "Instead of criticizing the behavior or feeling, which automatically gets you into a power struggle, you are granting the wish through imagination. Instead of saying, 'Stop wanting that, it makes no sense,' or 'I can't do that for you now,' you are encouraging your child to imagine what he wants and then to describe it."
Be aware of what you’re saying without talking
Your kids are sponges. This can work for your relationship or it can work against it. Consider that your kids can tell what you’re feeling even if you aren’t using words to speak. Tina Payne Brison, co-author with Daniel Seigel of The Whole Brain Child and No Drama Discipline, has a great article called The Eight Things You Say Without Talking. Says Payne Brison, “Your child’s whole day can turn on something you’re not even cognizant of, something that’s not even said. Something as simple as your smile—or your touch—can soothe a disappointment and strengthen your bond. Or your nonverbals can do just the opposite.”
The four areas above are guides to become better communicators with your kids. Instead of getting stuck when they’re stuck with something, you can become a teacher that encourages learning. The goal of being an encouraging parent isn’t to have happy kids all the time but to have kids that are secure in themselves. Secure children can be effective stewards of their own feelings and have secure and flexible relationships with others and the world around them.