Imagine starting your first day of work with hundreds of employees you haven’t met before and are tasked with socializing with at least 20 of them and if you don’t find your peer group now, then you fear you may never find them. This is what kids and teens are facing with their back-to-school jitters following a pandemic of social isolation. If your child experienced higher levels of anxiety prior to the pandemic, then chances are they are feeling extremely overwhelmed and stressed about going back to school.
“Who do I sit with at lunch?”
“Who is my friend group?”
“Where do I belong?”
Middle and high schoolers are asking these questions daily. They see their peers making friends before their eyes and they just want to fit in, to be seen, accepted, and have a secured sense of belonging. Sound familiar? We all want what your child yearns for and it can feel heartbreaking to feel so disconnected.
Here are some ways to respond to your child when they come home from school upset about what occurred at school:
1. LISTEN, LISTEN, AND PROBLEM-SOLVE LISTEN!
First, listen to your child. Like really listen and without planning on what you are going to say next. You may experience your own negative emotions because as a parent, who would want to hear that their child is in pain? It’s painful for you too and probably extremely difficult to tolerate your child’s pain. But for now, just listen. You cannot help your child without really knowing what is bothering them. Are they upset because they can’t understand the class material? Are they sad because a kid at school made a negative comment about their appearance? Are they worried because they fear they won’t make friends? Pay attention to their emotions and desires.
2. VALIDATE THEIR EMOTIONS
They might start off to divulge their worries and begin crying and you may have the urge to say “it’s okay! You don’t need to be sad. Let’s find a way to make friends.” In this moment, we don’t know what your child needs so it is still best to fully assess the situation. What you can do is validate their primary emotion, “Oh sweety, it’s tough going back to school and not knowing who to sit with. It makes sense you are so sad. Do I have that right?” You are showing them that their emotions are normal and natural. You are telling your child that you understand them and they are valid.
3. ASK FOR WHAT THEY NEED
Let’s face it. Kids and teens are in tune with themselves and may know exactly what they need at a given moment. So, try asking them. “It’s 3:30pm and you have piano at 5pm. What do you need right now?” They can respond in numerous ways; “I want a snack,” “Let’s go home,” “I have no idea.” Trust that your child is the expert on themselves. You can even tell them “I see this is so upsetting for you right now. Do you want me to help you problem-solve?” If they say no, let it go.
4. PRACTICE HOW YOU WILL COPE
Seeing your child become dysregulated will likely impact you in some way. It’s important to have a game plan on how you will cope in the moment when you have urges to offer all the possible solutions. Practice taking 3 deep breaths when your child starts crying; imagine that there is a bubble around yourself so that your child’s emotions cannot break the bubble. You can still feel what your child feels but the emotions do not become your own. This will take practice to find what works in the moment.
Lastly, know that all of your urges make sense. You want to problem-solve with your child so that you can fix the situation and prevent them from feeling sad or scared. What is important to show children is that negative emotions are normal. Problem-solving does help and we can teach them how to initiate a conversation with others, how to join an open social circle, etc. But for now, let’s focus on sitting with their emotions.