The start of a new school year can be an exciting but stressful time for some kids. We caught up with Newcastle clinical psychologist, kids yoga and mindfulness teacher and acclaimed author Lynn Jenkins for the best tips on helping our kids to find calm amongst the chaos.
All the Feels
A new year spells exciting opportunities, new challenges and big changes for kids, but stress and anxiety can ruffle their feathers and get children (and those who look after them) feeling all worked up. Lynn explains that it’s normal for kids to feel nervous, scared or excited when heading back to school, starting at day care or preschool or trying something new. “It’s normal to feel at least a bit nervous when starting something new as there are ‘unknowns’ even if kids return to the same school. Excitement to see friends is a common feeling, and some may feel very anxious if they are prone to feeling this way, if they didn’t have a good time at school last year, are starting a new school or going for the first time.”
Knowing When to Step In
Resilient kids often cope better in stressful situations and face new challenges with openness and curiosity, but it’s hard for parents and carers to stand back and watch their little ones struggle with life’s big moments. Lynn suggests learning when to rush in and ‘rescue’ our kids and when to give them space to work things out is a gentle process. “We don’t have to throw them in the deep end and see what happens – they could sink! But we can lengthen the rope and see how they handle it BEFORE offering ourselves as a life preserver,” says Lynn.
Using a sliding scale when parenting can be helpful with Lynn explaining that a parent’s role changes from ‘manager’ when our children are babies and toddlers to ‘consultant’ when our children are teenagers. “When we give our kids the opportunity to have a go at using their skills, we can work out where are on the scale we are. They might just surprise us!”
When your morning isn’t going to plan and shoes are lost, hair brushing and teeth cleaning are being wrangled and the kids just don’t want to get in the car, finding calm is often the only way to navigate these meltdown moments. Lynn says the first, important step is to stop and notice our children. “Their need might be that they need to finish their LEGO or whatever it is they are doing. Our need might be that they put on their shoes to get ready for school, but their need is probably very different!?
Lynn suggests heading for a win-win. “For example, you could say ‘I know you need to finish your LEGO and I know I need you to put on your shoes so we can get to school on time. How about you do your LEGO for 5 more minutes then you put your shoes on so we leave the house on time?’” Lynn outlines that pausing, noticing, trying to see things from their point of view and factoring in your child’s needs when talking to them, is a good, general way to go.
The Busy Week
Enrolling your child in every sport, music or drama opportunity that pops up in your inbox might seem like a wonderful chance for them to learn and grow, but is all the extracurricular activities necessary? “Downtime is hugely important because kids are switched on all day and their nervous systems need a rest!” explains Lynn. “By us valuing downtime, our kids will learn to value it too. We have a relaxation system as well as an active system and we need to exercise both.” Lynn suggests there is no magic balance but says the magic is in the word ‘balance.’ “There is definite power in having the ability to pause and just ‘be’ without having to ‘do’ all the time. Use this as your guide.”
Finding the elusive perfect formula of screen time for children can be tricky for parents, especially when school kids often need a computer to complete schoolwork. Lynn says that accepting that technology isn’t going anywhere is important for parents. “Technology isn’t always sinister. It can be an excellent way to engage kids to be consistent in learning a skill for example.” Lynn says how certain games affect behaviour in kids however, is important for parents to note. “When kids are engaged in games, their fight/fight system can be easily activated. This can explain the carry-on when it’s time to get off it!
A lot of use can also lead to a child’s ‘reward’ system in their brain to need more and more excitement (which games offer) to switch on. This can look like boredom or dissatisfaction with, or even opposition to activities that might have previously made them feel satisfied. Lynn suggests parents have different quotas for different types of ‘screen time’ and to find overall balance. “Kids love screen time but they need things like connection, family time, activity and playfulness for their overall development. So maybe a ‘you can have the treat, but you have to eat your apple first’ approach could be the way to go.”
Easing Kids Into the New School Year
Here’s Lynn’s top 4 tips to start the year off on the best foot for the whole family.
1.Be organised and prepared – do a ‘play-out’ of the day if needs be. So, pack lunch, drive/walk to school, talk about what happens when they go into school, and even go back to school at the time of pick-up. The idea is to give them even a small sense of ‘knowing’ what to expect. It is the ‘not knowing’ what will happen that can cause distress.
2. Generally, speak and behave confidently and positively leading up to the start of school or a big event. Not overdoing it but, inserting positive coping statements in your own ‘talk’ – I’ll give this a go; I don’t know what to do, but I will know soon; I feel a bit nervous but I think I can do it; I’m looking forward to hanging out with my friends today.
3. Carve out time to listen to any concerns/worries/thoughts your child might have and ‘validate’ what they say. It helps kids to process the whole story – i.e. The beginning of the story is the worry, the middle is considering options and the end is feeling like they have a direction to head in. So, acknowledge worries and gently guide them in the direction of seeing they have the abilities and skills to deal with what they are concerned about.
4. Understand that if kids are feeling the various levels of worried, it is because their brain is sensing they are uncomfortable and not totally safe. Any strategy that is adopted, therefore, is aimed at helping them to feel safe and more comfortable. This will vary from child to child and parents know their kids best! It might be arming them with a ‘tool belt’ of what makes them feel comfortable, e.g., An image, a holiday memory, a sentence they can say to themselves, something in their pocket they can touch. Once their brain senses they are comfortable and safe, their nervous system can settle and worry feelings can decrease.
When Odette Tonkin isn’t writing, she’s chasing after her four kids on their Newcastle urban acreage, surrounded by her veggie garden, chooks and bees! Odette has worked as a newsreader, public relations officer and spent over ten years as a writer and editor at Pacific Magazines, writing for a bunch of magazines including TV Hits, Girlfriend, K-Zone, Total Girl, New Idea and Famous.