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Big day, big feelings: your child’s first day of school

[img_caption src=”×150.jpg” link=”” align=”right” caption=”Margret Nickels, Ph.D.” alt=”phot of Margret Nickels”]Margret Nickels, Ph.D., directs the Center for Children and Families at Erikson Institute. She is a clinical psychologist who has worked with parents and children in the Chicago area for more than 25 years.

Big, new steps in our children’s lives create big, new feelings – not just for our children, but for us as well. When our little ones start preschool or kindergarten, it is such a big step. As parents, we hope our children will be excited and enthusiastic and, most likely, they are.

But many other feelings are naturally part of the mix: apprehension, maybe even anxiety, and sometimes confusion. In my recent conversations with parents about this big day, mothers and fathers shared their hopes and worries about how their children would fare. They were looking for tips and strategies on how to prepare for this big step.

While there is a lot of information available about how to be prepared for this transition before, during, and after the child’s first day at school, let me share what mothers and fathers have reported as a most helpful message: their own feelings are the bridge to whatever new situation their child faces!

What does that mean? The way we feel colors the child’s experience, particularly a new experience. Our children take their cues about what is safe and not safe from us. Early childhood research calls this mechanism “social referencing.”

Children respond to parents’ feelings

Children respond to our faces, gestures, and body postures like drivers to traffic signs. Smiles, relaxed posture, and a calm voice mean “go.” Tension and distractedness mean “caution.”

When our voices become loud; when we become overly excited, rushed, or frantic; when we are anxious and stressed because of our own worries, what our child sees is a big stop sign.

I strongly believe that the most important “strategy” to share with parents looking to do their best to support their child through big life changes is to remember that to create calm, you have to be calm. That’s easier said than done, since we often are not aware of our own feelings as we focus on helping our child.

Being mindful of ourselves

I speak from experience. Twenty years ago, I dropped off my son on his first day at preschool and, after saying goodbye, I promptly bumped into another car as I backed out of a parking space. I am a good driver, so what happened? Well, I had not allowed myself to realize what a big and important moment this was for me, his mom.

My little boy going to school, having his own new experiences without me, and being taken care of by others? I had to face it. This was not just a watershed step for my son, but for me as well. Insurance covered the vehicle bump, but our emotional bumps are difficult to fix unless we pay careful attention and are aware of how we are feeling.

All parents experience emotional bumps! We need to be mindful of them and get support to steady ourselves so we can be a smooth emotional bridge for our children.

I am always impressed by how quickly parents are able to get in touch with their own apprehensions about their child entering school. They remember how difficult school was for themselves because of shyness, and they share their own worries about missing their child, about someone else not caring for their little one the way they do, and about finding it hard to think that their child may experience initial anxiety and sadness. However, they all seem strengthened and more confident after sharing their feelings and finding that they are not alone.

Tips for managing the transition

My recommendation is to make sure to get the support you need to manage your feelings and manage your stress.

  • Talk about your feelings with your parenting partner and trusted others, even your child’s new teacher.
  • Express your worries and reflect on the feelings you bring to this situation. Try to see that your worries may not be your child’s worries. For example, you may be shy but your child may not be.
  • Think about how your child has successfully managed other challenges like having a new sibling.
  • Most importantly, remember that new challenges are a way for your child to grow and develop. Hold on to your confidence in your child and in yourself, and you will find the inner calm necessary to help them walk across this new bridge.

Remember, all of us take time to adjust to a new situation. We do things best if we can do them at our own pace. This is true for your child and for yourself.

However, should your concerns about your child’s adjustment to school continue past the initial weeks, please consider calling our experts at the Center for Children and Families at (312) 893-7119.

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