One thing that most parents are really good at is worrying about their kids.
Sometimes it's worry about the basics like diet, exercise and sleep, but more and more parents are anxiously focused on their kids' happiness. School can also be a source of worry and the triangles that can develop among parents, kids and teachers can be intense. As the new school year approaches, here are a few things to think about when and if your child appears to be struggling emotionally.
To some degree, school is to a child what work is to an adult. Imagine this: Every September you are faced with a new boss, a new office, new colleagues and new and ever increasing expectations about what you should be able to comprehend and produce. Further, your boss is watching you, taking notes on your daily performance, is quick to correct you publicly and is diligent in reporting quarterly on areas that "need improvement." As you can imagine, there are many opportunities for screw up and kids do screw up regularly. Dealing with friends, curriculum and teachers is challenge enough. Throw in parental expectation, and it's a wonder that any of them survive. But they do survive and many of them thrive in this environment.
The most critical accessory that children take to school with them is the backing of a calm and thoughtful parent; parents who are able to manage themselves well when they see their kids in trouble. An anxious and over-invested parent can do a lot to shut down communication with their kids and with their kids' teachers.
Though there are many challenges in the school system that can trigger a child's anxiety, the first place to look for stressors is always the child's home front. Stability in the family is crucial and even a minor disruption in the family relationship system can affect a child. Disruption comes in many forms: marital conflict, separation, divorce, illness, death, financial problems, and sibling and extended family issues. While some children weather these stressors well, others feel their foundations shaken and show up at school off balance and out of focus. Let's go back to the school/work analogy. If your marriage is falling apart, it is quite possible that your performance at work will suffer. The advantage of being an adult is that we can usually make the connection. Kids don't have the same advantage and often have difficulty understanding the change in their emotions.
Whether the stressors originate at home or at school, a calm, curious and supportive approach is best. Stay in good contact with both your kids and their teachers. Be slow to judge and quick to listen.
Where appropriate, allow your kids the opportunity to solve their problems before stepping in as their advocate. Watch your children at play and encourage the practice of self-control and delayed gratification. Teach them that life is not always fair. Above all, lead by example. Be conscious of the emotional charge that you carry and manage it responsibly. Anxiety is infectious. If you get anxious about your kids, both your kids and their teachers will feel it. The intensity in the issues will increase and your efforts to help will be less successful.
Margaret-Anne Speak is a registered counsellor with a practice on the North Shore. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 604-761-3440.
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