Back to school can be a hectic, stressful, and emotional time of year for families. Some parents are happy to have their children occupied during the day, while some miss the closeness brought on by summer. Most feel a little of both. The same is true for children. When school starts up, expectations run high, time is at a premium, and we are always a little behind. There are a number of things we can do to manage this time of year and handle some of the stressors that come with it.
Don’t over schedule
We are busy and this lifestyle lends itself to overscheduling our children. Since our kids have fewer opportunities to go outside and play, we sign them up for classes and fill each weekend with fun things to do. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, we need to pay attention. Children need down time to process, relax, and grow. Staying home also allows them the time to figure out how to entertain themselves and what to do when they are bored. If we constantly schedule their time, we create a need in them to be constantly entertained. Give your kids plenty of time to be home with the family. As winter sets in, take the time to cook, play board games, tell stories, and read together.
Find time to connect with your child
As our children get older, it seems as if they would rather be with their friends than with us. While this may be both true and developmentally appropriate, as parents, remember that they really do need us. Their home and family is their safe base. Make time and space for your child(ren) to talk and share with you. Take walks together, have a weekend ritual (bagels or ice cream are winners in our family), and eat at least one meal a day together as a family. Literacy experts encourage us to read to our children throughout their lives – even into their teen years. Not only does this create a better reader, but it creates the time, space, and ritual for closeness with our kids.
Don’t ask too many questions
When your child comes home from school, what is the first thing you say? Many of us ask: “How was school?” Or, when we meet a new child, we ask them: “What grade are you in?” These questions, while well-intentioned and harmless, are limiting. Asking this question of a child is like asking an adult: “How’s work?” In some circles, this is considered rude, and many adults don’t want to talk about work in social situations; we'd rather leave the grind behind. Children often feel the same way. They are more complex and interesting as people than what they do in school and usually are more interested in talking about a hobby, a good book they’ve read, or a new friend they made. Many of us have asked our children what they did today and gotten little or no information in response. Some children are tired of school, some have put that part of the day behind them, others feel interrogated by too many questions, and some want the power to share when they are ready to share. Most children are good at compartmentalizing their day, and once a part of it is over, they have moved on.
Respect your child’s autonomy
There are many reasons why a child will clam up when asked what they did that day. Instead, try a different approach: “It’s so nice to see you. I’ve missed you.” Or: “Wow, the paint on your shirt tells me you had a fun day!” Tell them about your day or share a silly story with them. When meeting a new child or seeing an old friend, try the same tact: tell them how much you have been looking forward to seeing them, ask them about a good book they’ve read, or what they like to do in their spare time. Children feel more seen and are more willing to open up and share. If you get silence in return, don’t feel the need to fill it. Children are always thinking and will be happy to share with you when given the space. One of the best ways to get a teen to talk is to go for a walk or car ride, leave the radio off, and resist the urge to fill the silence. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but you will find that your child fills the silence when given the opportunity.
One of the things we give up when we send our child to school (or to Grandma’s for the weekend) is the privilege of being a part of those moments in their lives. We may get glimpses, but we will never see the whole picture. As parents, it is both our job to let go and to make sure our children are safe. Our kids need to know that we trust they are safe, we trust they will come to us when they need us, and that we respect their independence and need for privacy.
Some final thoughts
Keeping the lines of communication open, creating time and space to be with them, responding to your children with empathy, and honoring silence are all positive steps in managing stressful times and creating the relationship you want with your child now and for the future.
Mindful Parenting, Francine Ronis, LPC, 571-213-9215, April 2009
Last weekend was no fun. It was filled with yelling, doors slamming, and crying… and that was just me! My five year old was even more of a mess. This is not a typical day in my home, but I have to admit I have my moments. You would think that as a child/family therapist, with 10 years experience teaching young children I would have the hang of this kid thing, of not losing my cool. And I do, most of the time. But there are those times I hear my mother’s voice come out of me, or my own voice sounding not as kind and loving as I would like. You know what I mean. Most of the time we are calm, understanding, loving and patient with our children. We enjoy them and understand that they are children. What happens in those moments when we are hijacked by our emotions and left wondering if we are fit to own a hamster, never mind raise a child? And more importantly, what can we do to minimize those occurrences? What I do, and what I teach other parents to do I call Mindful Parenting. It’s a practice I find not only helpful with children but transforming for relationships. It can be used all the time, and for all relationships. I didn’t coin the term, and there are some wonderful books about it. The way I practice and teach there are three steps. The first step is to have a meditation practice. I know, busy moms don’t have time for a meditation practice. I’m not talking about the weekend retreat in the woods or even the hour long morning mediation, although those would be heavenly! However, taking fifteen minutes, or even just five, to connect to your breath in the morning before getting out of bed, will change your day. Just noticing your breath, and letting all other thoughts drift away and then setting your intention for the day can be simple, yet transformational. When we take a moment to quiet what the Buddhists call our “monkey mind”, we get a glimpse of calm, a glimpse of wonder. As you practice for just 5 minutes, you may find yourself waking a bit earlier to practice more, or delaying your morning coffee for a few more moments while you breathe. Mediation changes your brain chemically, and physically. It lowers heart rate, blood pressure and can make you smarter! Monks add years to their lives by meditating. At the end of your mediation, add your intention for the day. It may be simple, “today I will be calm” or more grandiose “this day will be for the good of my entire family and all living creatures everywhere,” or “today will be filled with laughter, joy and love”. Always state your intention in the positive. Step 2: throughout the day when you feel stressed, take just one or two deep breaths. If you have mediated earlier these breaths will bring you back to that state and you will buy you time to act more thoughtfully. Step 3 if you find yourself really wanting to react as you take your breath, ask yourself, “why is this so upsetting to me?” Most often you will find that your reaction is not really about what is happening with your child (spouse, boss, mother- in- law) but linked to a worry (“my child will never learn how to make friends, “what will the other mother’s think? “I am a horrible parent!”) or an issue from the past. If you are feeling disrespected, ignored, taken for granted, (sound familiar?) and having a strong reaction to it, this is usually linked to a feeling of the same from your childhood, otherwise it wouldn’t pack so much of a punch. For me it’s being ignored. When my daughter ignores me (and what five year old doesn’t ignore her mother?) I am taken back to feelings of being ignored as a young child. As I remember that and breathe, I have a greater ability to be present with my daughter deal with her appropriately. Take some time in the moment or later when you have more time to think about when, as a child you may have felt these feelings. Journal about it if you can. As you start to acknowledge and heal these feelings you won’t react so strongly to your child when she pushes those buttons. Being mindful of your relationship with your children is extremely important because how we are with our children will affect them for their entire lives. If we can be present and loving with them most of the time, when we mess up it won’t be such a big deal. If we take the time to disentangle our old wounds from the triggers our children present us, and be responsible for our own actions and feelings, we will be on the road to raising children that will take responsibility for their own actions and feelings as well. Namaste.