As the Fall — in an extremely unpredictable moment in history — rolls around, parents are telling me that they’re feeling more anxiety about back-to-school than usual. For older children, this is the third school year with Covid. For our little ones, this might be the first time we ever drop our kids off at all.
I’ve talked about how to prepare your child for nursery school before. But today, I want to talk about the importance of your own emotional wellness as a parent during this transition.
Because your emotional wellness has such a big impact on your child’s experience.
And that means handling your own above-average anxiety.
Think of your emotional state like a barometer for your child.
You are their reference for safety and predictability. They are constantly watching you for cues, and if they see you feeling uneasy or afraid, they are going to feel uneasy and afraid themselves. Especially in a brand new situation.
That’s why your emotional state is such a key part of preparing your toddler for the first day of school.
I’m not trying to put more pressure on you — it is not your fault if your child screams like a siren with a broken Off button when you drive away from daycare. What I am saying is that when your energy can increase the chances of a confident hand-off if you can provide an emotional foundation.
I want this for both of you.
And that means you not only need to plan for your child’s emotional reaction to a new school year… you also have to plan to support your own emotional wellbeing.
Here are a few mental exercises that can make a huge impact on your confidence (and theirs).
Let’s take a worst-case-scenario for example- I’m removing all mom guilt, so we can focus on the action plan for the sake of this exercise.
Reaction: Your child starts to cry hysterically during drop off, clings to you physically and screams for you not to leave.
Your Plan: Since you know to expect a high level of distress in this moment, you might want to give yourself a few options.
- If my child becomes extremely distressed, then I will ask the school to call me if their stress has not improved in one hour.
- If I have to pick my child up from school, then I will acknowledge their bravery for trying and I will try again tomorrow. We will take it one day at a time.
Deciding ahead of time, when you are thinking clearly, will help ensure that your reaction aligns with your highest ideals and values. Get your partner involved with this plan too. Anticipating your options will allow you to more confidently react when you are faced with a potential upset.
Protect your emotional space
Let me put it to you this way- visitors should be avoided at all costs around transitional moments, especially ones where anxiety is high (unless that visitor is very helpful). No inlaws, no grandparents, no doting aunts. The last thing you want to deal with on top of your very real anxiety is complex social dynamics.
Also, limit as much emotional exhaustion from work or other obligations during the first week or two of the school year. Do less if you can. It’s okay. You’ll catch up later.
And, on the relationship front, try to avoid engaging in petty fights and disagreements since your emotional capacity for overcoming conflict will be limited. That said, communicating your fears and concerns regularly to your partner can help you think out loud and help them empathize with your concerns.
Let your child hear you speak positively about this change. Do a few run-throughs of the new schedule to help them feel like they have some sense of familiarity. Show them pictures of the school and speak about it often. Exposure to the topic will help them process the idea- even in early toddlerhood when it seems like they might not know what’s happening. They pick up on all of it: your tone, your energy- your confidence. Give them a chance to create a positive association via your own.
Last but not least, acknowledge the hard emotional work that parenting is and reward yourself accordingly. Plan a massage, a nice bottle of wine, date night, or a meal with friends to look forward to at the end of the first week.
I definitely plan to treat myself to something special. Whatever makes you feel taken care of — you deserve it.
When it comes to any transition, it’s helpful to manage your expectations, brace yourself, and expect turbulence.
These are some of the most challenging (but crucial) mountains for our children to climb, and what’s important is that you believe that they (and you) can climb it. It will take time for them to acclimate. For some, it might take weeks, for others, it might take months, but if you remain confident, calm, and communicative they will find their footing when the time is right.