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Back to School Emotions

By Barbara Pedalino, PsyD

Back to school butterflies are a natural phenomenon. The two most frequent words I am hearing in my practice about back to school are “excited” and “anxious.” They are both uttered simultaneously and related to unknowns. When I ask children what they mean by these words, they explain excited to mean seeing friends, discovering their classmates and new school supplies. Anxiety is described as worries of academic challenges, whether they will be liked, and uncertainty about their teacher’s temperament. When anxiety seems overly intense and symptoms manifest such as separation anxiety or physical complaints, psychological intervention may prove helpful.

For some children, back-to-school transitions will be compounded by new schools, rather than solely different classrooms. Whether preschool, kindergarten, first grade, middle school, high school or college, newness is experienced with excitement and anxiety. Regardless of the child’s age, the questions seem similar.

Will I be accepted or rejected?

What will my teacher(s) be like?

Will I feel lost in my surroundings or enjoy the adventure?

Will I be challenged in a good way or too much?

Will I get good grades?

Praising children for their good thoughts and wanting to protect them from their fears are reasonable responses from adults. Yet, as well-meaning as these reactions are, I would like to offer some words of caution. When we praise children for their ideas, we are unintentionally creating a dependency that they need our stamp of approval. How then, do we show our love, caring and support? I advise parents and teachers to lead with empathy. Rather than saying “That’s a good idea,” with a warm smile, try “You sound very enthusiastic” or “You seem very proud of your idea.” Instead of needing the adult to approve, you will be supporting the child’s internal process. It is a subtle but meaningful distinction.

Protecting children from their worries and fears is more complex. If we solve problems for them, even though it comes from a place of care and concern, we are actually implying that they cannot handle their own problems, that they need us to do it for them. In essence, we have perpetuated dependency again. In my practice, I like to model for parents how to guide children to solve their own problems and how to convey faith that children can learn to cope with their trepidations. They may not always be successful. They may make mistakes. But don’t we learn from our mistakes? When we empathize and say, “It sounds like you are really worried” or “Good luck,” they are left with feeling that parents understand their emotions and believe in their abilities. Regardless of the outcome, this builds strong character and self-reliance.

Prior to the onset of school, I encourage children to get together with new or former classmates. School doors are generally open a few days early, enabling students to familiarize themselves with the surroundings and possibly meet their teacher(s). Listen to your children’s ideas about routines and schedules. The more children actively participate in their planning and future, the better prepared they will be and feel.

As Benjamin Franklin stated, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”

Dr. Pedalino is a licensed clinical psychologist in Palm Desert whose interest in self-esteem spans all ages. She may be contacted at (760) 702.0878.

2 Responses to “Back to School Emotions”

  1. Frima Berk says:

    Googled you – like your comments! My 6 yr. “old” grandson just started a new school (gr. l). The previous school for J.K. & S.K. was more like organized play – a bit of working on the alphabet/reading, art work, etc.- private religious school…. Now he’s in the public elementary system which unfortunately has threatening strike action (teachers/union – money issues & working conditions, etc.) His Mom had the paediatrician arrange a consult with a psychologist (or maybe a psychologist , not certain …. male. Too bad we’re not nearby to you……

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