October 4, 2022
from Dr. Jules Nolan, MPA school psychologist
Among the excitement and speedy pace of returning to school, we tend to feel a lot of varying emotions. Friendships and routines are re-ignited, new ones are formed, and our students begin to settle in amidst change all around them. This fall, we asked Dr. Jules Nolan, MPA school psychologist, for advice on supporting children in a new school year to equip you and your family with tools for a successful, happy, and healthy year.
Dr. Nolan’s Top Three Tips
First, remember that anytime we experience big changes in our lives (new school year, new house, new baby) our brain goes into “safety” mode and spends thinking resources scanning the environment to ensure safety. This is a largely unconscious process but can manifest in our bodies like nervousness and feeling uncertain. During times like this, we are likely to be forgetful, feel scattered, and have a hard time initiating tasks or persisting when things get tough. In children and teens, this can look like low frustration tolerance, reluctance to try new things, high emotionality, tiredness, and so on. Our brains are calmed by routine, familiarity, pattern, and predictability. It is important to fortify your routines so that you are getting up and going to bed at the same time, eating at the same time, choosing clothes the night before, setting out what you need to remember the night before, etc. Essentially, your brain gets busy with seeking the familiar, and that makes it hard to make small decisions, remember things, and so on. Routine and structure calm the brain and this phase will pass quickly (a few weeks) if you focus on predictability, routine, and structure.
Second, remember that even if you have had a great and smooth “back to school,” after a few weeks of “honeymoon,” you may begin to see changes in your students like loss of motivation, lack of interest in studying, and lower performance. Remember that this is a good time to teach your children about motivation. Some people mistakenly think that intrinsic motivation (feeling motivated by the subject matter or the satisfaction of completing something) is the “good” kind and that extrinsic motivation (using tangibles, activities, or praise) is the “bad” kind. The truth is that people who use both kinds of motivation to do the things they don’t like to do–but must complete–are the most successful. Think of what you use to keep you working on things you despise (taxes, laundry, cleaning, etc). Often, we use external motivators to keep us engaged and that make us successful. The best motivators are those that your children choose themselves, but remember that work always comes first and the “break” time should be no more than a few minutes. We do best with many intervals of working and breaking rather than one long work period followed by a long break.
Third, be careful not to over-schedule your family. All of the activities and experiences we want our children to have can actually hinder development and lower confidence, especially in young children. A child who has structured lessons and coaching in several areas can come to feel that they are not good enough as they are. Dr. Lisa Damour, NYT bestselling author of “Under Pressure” tells us that we should think about what we could do at 100% of our effort, and then scale back to about 75%. Our teens can also easily get overscheduled. If your child’s sleep, eating, or socializing is suffering, you need to pare down their schedule.
Looking Out For Each Other
Anxiety can look like nervousness, fear, worrying, and ruminating. Or it can look like irritability, refusal, withdrawal, low frustration tolerance, high emotionality, and even excessive excitedness. Remember that anxiety is a normal and natural response to uncertainty and that we have more voluntary control over our anxiety than we think. Feeling anxious is part of life and when we try to make anxious feelings “go away,” we give kids (and ourselves) the impression that anxiety is bad. In reality, anxiety helps us prepare to perform and those “butterflies,” that feeling of dread or nervousness should be seen as a signal that we need to do something to prepare for the event we are worried about. For example, if your child says “I can’t stop thinking about the speech I have to give at the end of the semester,” you might say, “Great! That is your brain telling you to start planning for this speech. What kinds of things do you think you’d like to talk about?”
Working Through Big Feelings
Normalize the feelings. Nervousness and anxiety are helpful emotions, even though they might feel uncomfortable, because they prepare you to perform. People who have anxious feelings before they perform do better than those who don’t. Remind your kids that they can feel uncomfortable and still perform. They can be afraid and brave at the same time. Then, remind them that they have more control over these feelings than we think. For example, the neurons in your brain that alert the “fight/flight” structure (called the amygdala) communicate with the nerves that surround your lungs. When you breathe fast and shallowly, you can trigger your brain to fear, even panic. But when you slow down your breathing on purpose, (deep breath in for the count of four and a slow breath out to the count of six) the nerves surrounding your lungs communicate to your “fight/flight” center that you are safe and you can calm down.
Also remember that anytime we avoid the thing that makes us nervous or worried, we can accidentally make the anxiety bigger. If you have a child with an anxiety disorder, or who demonstrates signs of anxiety, it would be good to create a behavioral “goal” for them rather than avoiding all of the things that can trigger anxious feelings. For example, if you have a socially anxious kid, talk to your teacher, their therapist, and the learning specialist about a goal to improve the anxiety, not just flee it. You might want your child to be able to approach other students and start a conversation by mid-year. Then, work on baby steps toward that goal rather than asking for accommodations that help your child to avoid all anxiety-producing situations. Life is full of anxious situations, and we need skills to cope with them, not avoid them.
Emotional regression is to be expected, especially during times of change and stress. It is common for students to use coping mechanisms that are below their developmental level when things get tough, especially if they are tired, hungry, lonely, sad, or angry. They might want to watch old television shows, cuddle with stuffed animals, play with old toys, or be physically closer to you. This even happens in the teen years.
Recognize this as a sign that they need some downtime. If it turns into big emotional outbursts, calmly but firmly ask them to go to their room to let their big feelings out in private and to calm down. If they are rude, disrespectful, or aggressive, remove yourself from the situation and take care of yourself. Remind them that you don’t talk to them that way and they are not allowed to talk to or treat you that way. You teach them good boundaries when you do that. They learn how to treat their most beloved people (now and in their future) and how they can expect to be treated by their partners.
I think it is important that each student have their own “menu” of coping tools. Breathing, distraction, taking a walk, intense exercise, listening to music, playing with a pet, activities that involve creative expression, a cold pack on your neck or face, essential oils, a hand massage, and reading a good book all are accessible examples of things that relieve stress. The important thing is that your student chooses what is on their menu and that the strategy is appropriate for the setting.
Our children can smell inauthenticity a mile away. When you are concerned about something that is going on in their lives, at school, or with friends, you have to meet it head-on. Be careful not to demand too much or assume the worst. Remember that from adolescence onward, our students “read” concerned facial expressions as anger. When we get concerned, they may think we are angry. Below is a helpful script to follow:
“It seems that something is going on that you might need help with. I trust you to solve your own problems, but I am here to listen or help, depending upon what you need. Remember though, if it is a matter of health or safety for you or your friends, we have to work together to solve it. You must reach out to an adult if it is one of the ‘big five’ issues–suicidal talk or gestures, eating and food issues, violence in relationships, self-harm, and any risky behavior that is scary.”
As parents, we don’t get enough credit for how hard this job is, nor how much parenting includes “grief.” Each stage is a mixed bag of lovely and distressing events. When we remind ourselves and our children that “life includes this,” we can better cope when things go badly. If our child is disrespectful, lies, fails to do chores or hand in assignments, gets in trouble with social media, or hurts a friend, we remind ourselves that these things are to be expected, developmentally appropriate, and part of life. When we look at these events as opportunities to learn a lesson, build emotional resilience, or show our warmth and consistency as parents, it helps us to stay positive. Think about it like this: your child needs many experiences to become a wise adult. They need to struggle and prevail rather than sail smoothly through life. When we have hard experiences in childhood, we become stronger adults. When we experience tough emotions–lonely, sad, left out, unfair treatment, failure, disappointment, meanness–we develop the “emotional antibodies” we need to manage those emotions as we get older. Saving our children from these experiences leaves them unprotected to handle what will come in their future.
In early childhood, we do this best with play dates, activities, and having parent friends ourselves. Later, it is important to give our children a variety of experiences so that they can find friendships. If you have a child that is shy or socially struggling, it is a good idea to partner with the school and express your concerns. We do a great job of socially “engineering” friendships by partnering kids together who would be good for each other.
As parents, we often get worried when a relationship seems bad for our kids. For example, when our child treats another child unkindly, or when our child is the recipient of unkind behavior. Especially as they move into Middle School, it is important to talk about this without judging or lecturing the child on what they should do. Instead, you might say, “Your friend seemed really sad when you said that she couldn’t play with you. Did you notice that too?” Usually, when we can get our children into an empathic emotional state, they will see how their actions were hurtful. Then it is important to acknowledge that sometimes we hurt others, but we always get the opportunity to say sorry and to do something to make it better. Remember that apologizing isn’t enough–we must restore when we injure a relationship.
On the other hand, sometimes we will notice, especially in Middle or Upper School, a friend that treats our child poorly. This is a time when our own strong emotions can be triggered, especially if we experienced rejection, bullying, or mistreatment ourselves. Resist the urge to tell your student that their friend is a horrible person and that they should ignore them. Remember that while we are able to avoid people who treat us badly in our personal lives, our students often have to see these people every day. Instead, talk about it from a curious standpoint. You might say, “You are such a good friend and yet I see this person doing things that seem unkind, a way I have never seen you act with friends. Help me understand this.” The minute you judge an unkind friend, you push your student into the position of having to defend that person. Instead, get curious and be patient. Below is a script that seems to work well with older teens:
“I know you like this person and you are afraid that distancing yourself will make you lose your group of friends and that makes sense to me, so you get to do whatever you want. Just remember though, that people treat you the way you teach them to treat you. If you say nothing or go along with bad treatment, you will get more of it. We tend to end up with the kind of friendships that we allow. In other words, if you allow people to be mean, use you, dismiss or degrade you, you are likely to end up with lots of ‘friends’ who behave that way. It is harder, I know, but if you demand to be treated respectfully and kindly by walking away from friends who are consistently unkind, you will end up with friends who are kind and respectful.”
Recommended Reading, Watching, And Listening For Parents
- “Untangled” and “Under Pressure,” as well as the “Ask Lisa” podcast, by Lisa Damour, PhD, New York Times bestselling author
- “14 Talks By Age 14” by Michelle Icard
- Family 360 Podcast
- “Decoding Boys” by Dr. Cara Natterson
- “The Blessings of a Skinned Knee” and “The Blessings of a B-,” both by Wendy Mogel, PhD
- “How to Raise An Adult”by Julie Lythcott-Haims