With summer coming to an end and school on the horizon, many parents and children will be addressing the upcoming transition from summer vacation to the start of the new school year. This change can bring up various emotions for children and parents.
It's helpful for parents to initially check-in with themselves and identify their own feelings surrounding the beginning of school. For some parents the end of summer can be a loss, while other parents may look forward to more structured days. It's normal and okay for parents to have happy, sad, or a mix of feelings. If you are having a challenging time with the transition, find a friend, spouse, or close family member to share what's going on so that you can be more emotionally available for your children and their feelings with the return to school.
Children will also have many feelings about the start of school, and they can range from anxiety to excitement. Depending upon the age of your child, these emotions can be expressed in different ways. Young children may be more clingy, whiny, have trouble sleeping, or regress in their behaviors. School-aged children may be worried, avoidant, or easily frustrated. Adolescents may be more irritable, withdrawn, or anxious. All of these expressions are normal and expected behaviors for children when they face a big transition - like going back to school.
When children exhibit these behaviors, they are communicating their worried feelings about a new school year and are seeking your care, comfort, and support. For example, children and adolescents may be worried about being away from their parents for the school day, following the rules inside their classroom, wondering who their teacher will be, worried if they will be in the same classes as their friends, and all of the hard work that goes into the school year.
In the moment when children are expressing their feelings through play or behavior, it's best for parents to objectively reflect what they are observing. This means avoiding arguments or power struggles while naming the emotions their child is demonstrating. For example, if your teenager slams the refrigerator door, parents can say, "I heard you slammed the door. I wonder if you are feeling upset, is everything okay?" For a first grader who yells at their sibling, parents can say "I hear you shouting and I wonder if you are angry. Can you tell me what happened?" Your child may or may not want to engage in a conversation at this point, both options are okay. If your child chooses to discuss what is going on, listen and provide empathy. It may sound something like, "That would be frustrating. I'm sorry that happened." And continue to listen and be there for your child until their emotions calm down.
Bedtime is often a time and space when children are ready to process their day and an ideal time for parents to make connections about their child's behavior and feelings. It could sound something like, "I noticed that you have been wanting to be close to mommy while I'm working at home, I wonder if you are worried about not being close to me when you go back to school?" or for older kids, "I've noticed you are having a hard time turning off your video game, I'm wondering if you are worried you won't have much time to play video games when you go back to school?" By making an explicit connection between their behavior and their thoughts about the back to school transition, in a non-threatening and pressure-free manner, parents help children understand the root of their behaviors. This practice will provide a model for them on how to manage challenging feelings when they inevitably arise in the future-by going to their parent or loved one and discussing how they are feeling is the best way to help them feel better.
During a time of transition, like going back to school, parental support, kindness, compassion, and care is what gives children the ability to deal with their feelings in a time when they are having many emotions.