Sometimes, people look at the same thing and have dramatically different reactions. The example that comes to mind is a mother and a child walking into a store and seeing a sign that says, âBack to School Sale.â The mother has a faint smile and a look of relief, but the child is frowning. If youâre standing close enough to them, you might hear the mother softly say, âfinally.â And you might hear the child whisper, âalready?â
Itâs easy to understand why parents look forward to the beginning of the school year. You send your child to school to learn and to spend time with friends. You hope your child will grow intellectually and socially so that school is a stimulating and satisfying place to look forward to. You feel relieved because it is hard to provide satisfying and stimulating experiences for your child all summer long. Thatâs why you react to the back-to-school sign the way you do.
Why does your child react to the back-to-school sign the way she does? Why does she seem apprehensive at the prospect of returning to school? You think of her school as a place to learn new and interesting things and to get to spend time with her friends. How does she see it?
The best way to find out what your child frowns about when she sees a back-to-school sign is to ask her. Thatâs what I suggested to a mom when she expressed her concern. Her response to me was as follows:
I know exactly what Dina is going to say to me if I ask her what sheâs frowning about when she sees a back-to-school sign. Iâve been through this with her every year. For almost a week before the first day of school she cries every night and tells me she has a stomachache and canât sleep because sheâs scared about school starting. I want you to know that my husband and I are very patient with her. We explain to her that thereâs nothing to be afraid of; that she is going to make friends and that sheâs going to have some of the friends she had last year and sheâs going to enjoy learning new and interesting things and that the teachers are going to be nice to her. We know that Dina is a very serious child, yet the fact is she does very well in school and she does have friends, so we donât understand why she gets so upset. And whatâs equally baffling to us is that her brother, Yanky, also gets nervous before the school year begins, and heâs the opposite of Dina. Heâs Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky about everything until four days before the school year begins and then all of a sudden heâs a basket case. We both feel bad that this happens to our kids every year. What are we doing wrong?
These parents werenât doing anything wrong that was causing their children to worry about school. Nonetheless, they needed to learn what to do better. Fortunately, they were willing to learn it.
The premise that they and many other parents begin with is that they need to reassure their children that there is nothing to be afraid of. This is a false premise. When your child tells you that he anticipates something being difficult, unpleasant, or scary, you may be tempted to tell him that itâs not going to happen or that itâs not going to be that big a deal if it does. You truly believe that what your child is worried about is not going to happen, and even if it does, it wonât be that big a deal. Your sincerity is not the issue here; you really do mean what youâre saying. The issue here is your efficacy; youâre going to accomplish nothing until you accept your childâs perception and concern.
Okay, so now that I believe that my childâs school anxiety is based on some real concern that he has, what am I supposed to do about it?
What are you supposed to do about what? There are two distinct possibilities you can consider when you say to yourself, âwhat am I supposed to do about my childâs school anxiety?â
One is, âhow can I address the situation that my child is anxious about?â
The other one is, âhow can I address my childâs anxiety?â
The answer to the first question will require much more information from your child. Ask him to describe the situation that he is concerned about. Use open ended questions, not yes or no questions.
For example, if your child tells you he is afraid that he will be teased in school, ask him:
Where are you when this happens?
Which of are your friends are nearby when this happens?
What have you said in the past when someone teased you?
How soon can you move away from the person that is teasing you when this happens to you, where could you go to get away?
What else do you wish you could do when someone teases you?
If your childâs answer to any of these questions is, âI donât know,â tell him thatâs okay and youâd like him to think about it. Then resist the urge to come up with answers for him; let him think about it.
What about the second possibility, what if you want to address your childâs anxiety rather than the situation heâs anxious about. How do you explain to your child that he shouldnât become anxious?
Never do that. Never tell your child that he shouldnât become anxious. Hereâs what happens when you tell your child that he should not become anxious: the next time he becomes anxious (and he will), he will immediately become anxious about the fact that heâs anxious, because you told him not to be anxious. This is a downward spiral of anxiety you do not want to put your child into.
If you want to address your childâs anxiety about a situation heâs anxious about, you do it by preventing the downward spiral of anxiety your child may put himself into. You teach him to accept the fact that heâs anxious rather than being upset over being anxious. Then you invite him to imagine tolerating and coping with the discomfort and difficulty he envisions happening to him. You may hope it will never come to that. He needs to believe heâll get through it if it does.
Occasionally, for most children, school is hard. Some of the time, for many children, school is okay. And very often, for almost everyone, school is wonderful. Help your child prepare for the harder times and make sure he tells you about the good times, too.
Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor with specialties in marriage, relationships, and parenting. He works with parents and educators, and conducts parenting seminars for shuls and organizations. He can be reached at 718-344-6575.