As children across the US (and around the world) go back to school and adjust to their new routines, their parents, too, are adjusting. With the transition from summer break to school comes a lot of feelings for children, from excitement and happiness to anxiety and disappointments about friends, coursework, teachers, and so much more. And as parents, we try to help our children cope with the mixed bag of emotions that they bring home every day.
Starting school is a big deal. Parents know it and kids feel it. The emotions kids have weigh heavily on them. How a child navigates and manages their emotions is integral to their success at school, both academically and socially. As one child recovers quickly from a loss and is able to move on, another may struggle, delaying development of new skills, learning the next lesson, or getting along with friends.
So how do parents help their children with their emotions?
Helping your child emotionally doesn’t need to happen in the moment. In other words, if a child is rebuffed by a friend at school, a parent need not be there at that moment to help their child understand that encounter. Instead, by being available to process their day after school parents help their child emotionally so they can return to playing, learning, and socializing the next day.
Being available consists of four things that children need from parents to help them process, understand, and move past unhappy feelings. All of which are things that parents likely already do for their spouse, colleagues, or friends. The first one is listen.
It sounds simple but 'just listening' can be quite challenging for parents, especially when your child is upset. It’s natural for parents to want to “fix” things for their child, but fixing things can cause children to feel unheard or dismissed, and in the end doesn’t aid the child in learning how to cope with or manage their feelings. It’s important to understand that your child is unhappy, but does not want to feel this way, they simply haven’t learned how to navigate their way out of their unhappiness yet and they need your help.
When parents meet unsettling emotions, whether through a conversation, passive-aggressive behavior, or a tantrum, reiterate what your child is expressing and/or experiencing so they know you are listening. And always respond in a concerned manner. For example, if your child is older and has the maturity to express themselves verbally, repeat what they are saying so they know you are listening. An example may be a teenager who comes home from high school and slams her bedroom door. Her mom knocks on her door, acknowledges her daughter’s unhappiness by saying “I can see you are upset”, and then let’s her daughter know she is available if she wants to talk. “I’ll be downstairs if you want to talk about it.” Later, her daughter comes to her and says “When I said ‘hi’ to Meghan, she acted like she didn’t hear me, and walked right past me!” Her mother responds, in a concerned manner, “Meghan didn’t acknowledge you or say hi?!!” Continue to listen and reiterate what they are communicating. This will encourage them to continue to open up, as well as feel important, because they have your undivided attention.
If your child is expressing passive-aggressive behavior, reflect their emotions. For example, a mother picked up her son from school, and he asked for a snack. When the mother said they can have snack at home, like usual, her son lashed out at his mom saying, “You never have a snack for me! I’m starving! Why do you do this to me?!!” His mother can respond with, “Wow, you are really upset! When we get home I can fix your favorite snack, would that work?” And on their walk home, his mother remains calm and gently asks how the day went and learned that her son forgot his gym shoes and couldn’t play his favorite game. His mom reiterates what she