Are things beginning to go awry at your house? They are at mine.
The kids are on edge, constantly provoking, teasing and pushing one another's buttons. One child's skin is so thin she might burst. Suddenly, every challenge we've faced, the bigger the better, is flaring up again. Why this? Why now? You'd think something big was going on and—oh.
Yeah. School's starting.
With a new teacher and a new grade. That means all the old expectations that were never easy in the first place are on the way back—while the specter of new ones, still unknown, looms.
Back-to-school is a challenging time for most kids, but for those with anxiety or learning and/or behavioral challenges, the start of school—whether they "like" school or not—can bring back behaviors you thought they'd long since left behind, leaving you bewildered until you realize that there is a good reason for all of this regressing.
Your child knows what's coming, and their brain is so busy coping with the stress of preparing for change, or dealing with the change as it happens, that all the self-control they've built up seems to have washed right down the drain.
If transitions are hard on your child—and your child is hard on you—try these strategies to help them cope, and find a way to cope yourself.
1. Stop the catastrophizing.
When you watch a child who's faced a lot of challenges take one step forward and two steps back, it's easy to hop the first train on the This-Is-Never-Going-to-Get-Better line and ride it to the Very-Worst-Thing-You-Can-Imagine station. Try to stop tormenting yourself.
Reach out to other parents who you know have been on that train and find a way to laugh at whatever worst-case scenario you're imagining. It's just a couple of weeks, not a lifetime. Just a little regression, not the end of all hope.
2. Don’t feed the beast.
Your child needs some extra care right now, but may be "asking" for it by doing everything possible to push you away or frustrate you. When your child is dumping out their emotional bucket on the floor in front of you, try not to let your own emotions refill it. One mother who has been down this road many times used a phrase I loved: "I try to stay calm. I try not to feed the beast."
3. If you see something, don’t always say something.
Don't feel like you need to interfere every time you hear the old patterns repeating. Some of this you can just watch and observe and let happen.
Allow siblings to work out their anxieties on one another as long as they aren't drawing blood or making things worse; they can be more tolerant of each other's foibles than you think.
Don't respond to the frustrated grunts over homework or shoe-tying or zippers unless you've been actively called. If your child is shrieking their way through the house in the morning, mad with panic over an unmade lunch or a lost book, bite your tongue. They're releasing tension (and that "helpful" reminder that she should have done all this last night isn't very helpful).
4. Respond, don’t react.
When you do find yourself sucked into the storm, walk softly. Respond rather than react. "Sometimes," said another parent, "the negative attention-seeker just needs a hug even though that's not what you may be feeling."
If you can give a tolerant, empathetic squeeze when the easier reaction would be to yell or scold or threaten, the gold star to you—plus the bonus of not spiraling into the darkness of guilt, remorse and repercussions over unleashing your own frustrations on your kid.
5. Trust your gut.
No matter how much your child has on their plate, some limits need to hold firm. Limits make kids feel secure. When a pro-level button pusher appears dressed in an outfit they would never leave the house in and declares that "you're not the boss of me," your Spidey-sense may tell you that this is bait.
The trick is to take the bait off the hook—to enforce your household rules without going down the emotional wormhole. Double gold star if you can pull it off and still enjoy your day afterward, and full and total empathetic been there done that too if you can't quite.
6. Plan ahead for stress.
One experienced mother raised a good point—"it would be strange if it wasn't a stressful time." You've helped your child through transitions before. Now that you know this is just another one, reach back into that earlier toolbox for whatever has helped in the past, even if you thought you'd left scripts and schedules and charts and social stories behind. Familiar anxiety-coping strategies might work better than anything new, and you may not need them for long.
7. Allow extra time.
Kids pick up on our time stress. Instead of pushing the limits, take it slow, and accommodate the inevitable unexpected. It's not easy, but trust me, no one ever said, "Ugh, I'm sorry we got such an early start" during the first month of school.
8. Start as slow as you can.
School isn't the only activity that starts in the fall. Many teachers and coaches are trying to pack as much in before winter weather puts an end to it all. For children with special needs, or even those who are just more reserved, it's hard to plunge right into a sport or club right on top of heading back to school—and equally hard to join in late.
Hitting the ground running can mean some kids aren't going to run at all. If there's pressure to sign up and start early, ask the adults involved if it's possible to hold the door for just a little longer, to offer a second chance to sign-up, and not to nail down roles and jobs in the first week, which makes joining in later more difficult.
9. Don’t pile it all on.
I still remember my daughter, faced with a playdate I'd planned after school on an early day of first grade, wailing "but I'm so tired!" Especially in that first week, and for kids who are already struggling with the transition, sometimes school is enough.
No back-to-school shopping stop on the way home, no outing with friends. Protect the downtime your child has, even if it sounds fun to fit something else in. If your kids are in an after-school program, try to make sure they're allowed downtime; if they come directly home from school, make sure some afternoons stay clear.
Above all, be gentle on your children, and yourself, as we hurtle headlong into new schedules and a new season. Try to ease into it where you can, and if you can't, follow a long day up with a quiet night. Get some rest, breathe deep and take care of each other. This will all become routine soon enough. Just in time for the holidays.