Whether it's your child's very first day of preschool, or you're facing the nervewracking transition to middle school, no first day is easy. You've bought new backpacks and pencils on sale at Staples, you've packed their lunch, and you're detemined that they get the best possible start this year. You want them to know you love them and you're proud to watch them grow up (even if it seems too fast). So, is a speech in order? Knowing what to do if your kid is afraid of the first day of school can be a huge help, but is a pep talk what your child needs?
First off, it's important to put yourself in your child's tiny shoes. What makes them anxious? Pscyhology Today compiled a list of unknowns that might be keeping your child up at night, including whether they'll make friends their first day, and what their new teacher will be like. Ultimately, it's the wide unknown that causes them to bite fingernails — even adults know the struggle. Romper spoke with Lori Lite of StressFreeKids.com, and author of Angry Octopus Color Me Happy, Color Me Calm: A Self-Help Kid's Coloring Book. Her advice? A pep talk may not be right for the occasion — save the speeches for graduation.
"I'm the anti-pep talk person," says Lite, noting that when kids get pep talks, whether before the dentist or a haircut, they inevitably know something's up. Chances are, excited chatter about how great their new school is going to be will only wind them up. She prefers playing it cool, and keeping conversations about the first day neutral and calm.
Which isn't to say you shouldn't address any potential fears your child might have. Young children, for instance, simply might not know what to expect, and that can be frightening. So walk them through their day, Lite suggests, from drop-off to lunch time and recess. Be sure to end with your child coming home:
"Even as an adult, if you’re on a train and you don’t know how many stops to the last one, that's going to cause some anxiety. It’s the same thing for a child, but with every day life. They don’t have the experience to know how it goes and what’s at the end. I think we assume a lot [about what our kids know]."
Lite encourages parents to introduce their children to relaxation practices, like deep breathing and mindfulness, at a young age. While people often remember their childhood as a time of carefree ease, it's all too easy to forget the monsters that lurked under the bed. It's a big world, and children feel small. The more tools you give them for self-soothing, the better they'll be able to manage their fears.
Kids thrive on consistency, so better than a pep talk, make sure you have your routines in place before school begins. Lite recommends buckling down on bedtimes, and cleaning out the mismatched sock drawer to prevent morning meltdowns. She also recommends letting them create a study space for themselves, complete with purple pencils. "It gives them ownership," says Lite. "They feel empowered doing things like that."
If your child has a very specific fear, Lite recommends creating targeted affirmations. Is your little one afraid she won't make any friends? Ask her to imagine the reverse scenario — she does make friends — and repeat this positive thought.
Though she won't write your pep talk for you, Lite wouldn't leave you to your first day without addressing separation anxiety.
"My first child screamed all the way to preschool," she explains. To help her manage her anxiety, she introduced some roleplaying. Lite pretended to drop her off at school (in fact, her playhouse), and then returned to pick her up again. "When my daughter started pretending she's dropping me off, and comforting and soothing me, I knew we had it."
Before that important first day, try to get a sense of what makes your child particularly anxious about starting school — and what makes her feel excited, too. Address any worries in a calm, matter-of-fact way, and remember to keep hold of any anxieties you feel yourself. Going back to school is a big transition for the whole family, but with a little preparation, it doesn't have to be an unduly stressful one.