Helping Your Kids—And Yourself—With Back-To-School Transitions

By now, schools is in session across the country and I’ve talked with MANY moms who are struggling with the transition. Whether they are sending their six-month-old to daycare for the first time or their eighteen-year-olds off to college, it’s a difficult season for many moms.  

There are two primary reasons for this.  

First, it can be hard to watch our kids struggle with the transition.  Seeing my younger son in tears in his new pre-k classroom has definitely been challenging this year.  

Second, this season usually marks the beginning of a new classroom or a new phase of our kids’ growth that can leave us grieving the loss of the previous phase.  Watching my older son start kindergarten and honoring his request to ride the bus to school certainly brought up feelings of sadness and memories from when he was a baby.  Our brains can bring up difficult questions, like “Have I done enough?” Or “How did he grow up so fast?”

If you or your kids are struggling with this transition, here are some strategies to help.

Nothing Has Gone Wrong

When we feel a negative emotion and then think that we shouldn’t, we end up layering on more negative emotions and making the experience much worse than it needs to be. For example, if we try to push away feeling sad about the summer’s end by believing we should be feeling happy instead, we make our own experience worse and we don’t allow ourselves to benefit and learn from this natural part of the human experience.

On the other hand, when we can feel negative emotion and simultaneously believe that nothing has gone wrong, we allow ourselves to just feel the “clean pain” of life without layering the “dirty pain” of suffering on top of it.  

This works with our children as well.  When my three-year-old tells me he feels nervous or sad about school, I tell him, “it’s okay if you feel nervous or sad.  That’s the way you’re supposed to feel when you’re three years old and you start a new school.”  

If I were to push the feeling away and tell him not to feel that way, it would (1) be completely ineffectual, (2) create embarrassment or shame for feeling the way he feels, which would make the experience even more painful, and (3) instill in him unrealistic and unhealthy belief that he should never feel negative emotions as a human.

But when I tell him that nothing has gone wrong, he actually feels a bit of relief. He has permission to feel whatever emotion comes up for him. I tell him about when I was little and I felt that way, too.  I tell him that little by little, I started to feel less nervous.  I tell him that I still feel nervous when I do something new, too.  Nothing has gone wrong.  It’s part of being a person on the planet. 

Fully Feel How You Feel

Allowing yourself to fully feel a negative emotion, rather than resisting it, allows your body to fully process and release that emotion.  Research shows that the physiological response that is created when you have a thought lasts only about 90 seconds in the body.  

What causes us to feel sustained negative emotion is when we argue with the emotion, push it away, or continue to perpetuate it with more of the same thoughts. 

One of the best ways to interrupt that cycle is to ask some very specific questions:

  • What are you feeling now? 
  • Where are you feeling it in your body?
  • Is it tight or loose? 
  • Is it fast or slow? 
  • Does the feeling have a color?
  • Watch it carefully as you breathe in and out:  Does the feeling move or stay in one place? 
  • Notice the intensity:  Does it get stronger or weaker?  Does it come in waves?

Notice how the emotion doesn’t kill you, even though your brain tells you that it will.  

This is just as effective with kids as it is with adults.  In fact, teaching this to your kids is one of the greatest gifts you can give them.  If they can learn how to handle their negative emotions now, they will be so much stronger and more resilient throughout their lives, and a lot less likely to turn to drugs, alcohol, and other emotion-numbing substances when they’re older.  

Ask Good Questions

When you’re going through a difficult transition, it’s really normal for our brains to show us reasons why “everything” is going wrong.  

That’s because when we think thoughts like “something has gone wrong here,” our brains’ immediate response is to look for and gather evidence in support of that initial thought. 

But a lot of good is going on at the same time and you can direct your brain to see it by asking the right questions:

  • What is right about this?  
  • What is good about this?  
  • How is this going to make me/us stronger?  
  • What am I/are we learning from this?  
  • What are the ways in which I/we can handle this?  

Really do this exercise by getting some paper and writing down the answers to these questions.  Start accumulating evidence to support the belief that everything is as it should be.

You can do this with your kids as well. At the beginning of the day, ask them to look for 3 things that they like about their new classroom that they will tell you about after school. My three-year-old promised me this morning that he could find at least two things that he likes about his new school. I’ll take it.

Doing this helps us and our kids not only get through these transitions, but come out stronger and more resilient on the other side.  



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