By Stephanie Seng, director of CSU’s Center for Family and Couple Therapy
With the start of school just around the corner, children and parents likely are having many mixed emotions. While the possibilities that lie ahead with new classrooms, new teachers and new friends are exciting, the transition from summer to school can be challenging for many children. The following tips can help:
1. Prepare for school routines early. Begin routines for going to bed, awakening and mealtimes before school starts, giving your kids’ bodies time to adjust. Help your older child prepare an academic planner with daily routines. Consider creating a weekly calendar on a whiteboard with magnetic pictures of regular activities (school, soccer practice, piano lessons) that can be moved into place by your child and serve as a visual reminder of the day’s activities.
2. Keep an optimistic tone. Hand in Hand Parenting (handinhandparenting.org) explains that children flourish with a tone of optimism. It’s OK to share with your children that you, too, are disappointed summer is coming to an end. This normalizes their own feelings of disappointment. However, if you are also positive and excited about the new things that lie ahead, it will help your child be able to hold both emotions (disappointment and excitement) and look forward to the semester.
3. Be sure your child has opportunity for exercise during or after the school day. Research shows a direct connection between exercise and mental health, and PE class may not be enough. The American Heart Association recommends at least 60 minutes of physical activity per day.
4. Find ways to make the unknown more familiar. If your child is going to a new school, schedule a visit during the week before school starts. Practice the route to school and/or the classroom. Go online to see pictures of the school and its staff and to explore activities that happen at the school.
5. Whether it’s a new school or a new classroom, try to meet with teachers, if only briefly, to make an early connection. Consider a proactive meeting with the school counselor. It might be easier for your child to go to the counselor for support if s/he is someone they feel they already know.
6. Help your child connect with friends early. Social support can be a key to success. If your child talks about a friend at school, encourage them to schedule a playdate or a time to “hang out.” Be sure to meet the other child and his/her parents.
7. Establish early that you will be monitoring your child’s use of social media. Kids have many more ways to stay connected than their parents’ generation. These connections can help your child develop friendships and have fun, but they can also be unsafe. It is important to know who your children are connecting with and to intervene when necessary. Consider putting time limits on your child’s use of social media as well to ensure it is not interfering with sleep, homework, exercise, friendships, etc.
8. Create routine opportunities to connect. Family meals create time together and the opportunity for sharing. Whether it’s breakfast or an evening meal, each family member can share a success and a challenge they’ve experienced or are anticipating. Drive time to and from school or bedtime might be other opportunities for connection.
9. Be present and mindful. When you see your child off to school or welcome them home, give them your full attention, be 100 percent present. Managing your own stress and regulating your responses to difficult situations will help your child learn to do the same. Role-model coping strategies such as deep breathing, taking a break or talking about worries.
10. If your child seems to be having a hard time, make yourself available, but don’t force conversation. Give your child a hug and let them know you are there if they need you. Do something you enjoy together and leave the door open to talk if they want.
11. If your child is showing signs of more serious mental health issues such as depression or anxiety, don’t be afraid to get help. Children may not tell you that they are struggling, so trust your own intuition, your own understanding of them. If you sense something is up, then there probably is. Approaching and offering support is key. Although it is easy to see mental health as an individual issue, it is important to recognize that we are all connected. Your child may feel more comfortable if you offer to attend a therapy or counseling session together. If they are more comfortable with a more individual approach, you can also offer to connect them with their school counselor or a therapist in the community as additional support.
Stephanie Seng is a faculty member in the Marriage and Family Therapy Program in Colorado State University’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies. She also directs CSU’s Center for Family and Couple Therapy, which is affiliated with the MFT Program and provides high-quality therapy services to families, couples, individuals, adolescents and children. For more information, see www.cfct.chhs.colostate.edu.