Riding the Waves
Over the last several weeks, a recurring theme has emerged in discussions with many parents that goes something like this, “My child seems to be doing really well at school, but once we get home, he/she completely falls apart.” I’ve listened to stories of epic meltdowns, stubborn resistances, sibling spats, and generally unhappy family evenings. My first thought, and one I find reassuring, is that this is completely normal. The beginning of the school year takes tremendous physical, mental, and emotional energyit wears children out, no matter what their age. The next important thing to know is that it won’t last. Things become more routine and familiar. We all build stamina. Generally somewhere around the sixth full week, things tend to settle.
Until then? I offer this advice, synthesized from my own experience as a parent and educator along with wisdom from many articles and blog posts on this topic. Hopefully some of it will spark connections within your family, whether you are experiencing challenging evenings or not.
Think back to a transition of your ownthe start of a new job, walking into a large event where you don’t know anyone, or coming to your first BDS social. Many people experience some level of uncertainty at these times. Our “what if” thoughts spin. And generally, we manage all these internally, appearing calm on the outside. Our children are doing the same thing. When they return to their most safe, most familiar, most comfortable people and settings, the emotional stability begins to crumble. Children can let it all out with their family membersthe people who love, know, and value them.
Here are some ways to help. The first is to give breathing space. When we see our children at the end of their long day, a friendly greeting and hug are reassuring. Here’s the hard part, then right away try to give open space. Typically we are quick with, “How was your day?” or a similar question. Child development experts note for many children this is a loaded question at the beginning of the school year (and for some children it stays loaded all year). Instead, I suggest attending to something else. Talk about what you see as you drive home. “That tree has a lot more red leaves on it than it did yesterday.” Turn on the radio and sing along. Listen if your child shares with you, but don’t delve into anything at this early point of reconnection. Reflect back what you hear. “Oh, you learned a new math game.”
The next thing is food. Generally you can count on your child needing some sustenance after their school day. I read an interesting idea that we should not even ask children if they are hungry, but simply hand them some food or pull some out when we get home. “Are you hungry?” can trigger unintended emotional upheaval. Keep the food healthy and not too filling.
Everyone needs time to decompress at the end of the day, including children. If time allows, get outside, even for 5 to 10 minutes. Run around, throw a frisbee, find a treasure, whatever you and your child enjoy. The benefits of a little outside time together are immense. If you can’t get outside, try to fit in a few minutes of play inside. Nothing competitive at this time, just relaxing. If your child likes or needs to decompress alone, or you are trying to juggle siblings or dinner, parallel activities work well. Screen time is not a good choice for winding down the day, even for teens. While your child may “zone out” and seem to be decompressing, screen time actually produces the opposite effects neurologically.
Dinner or another calm time is the perfect time to hear and share about our day. Playing the game, Two Truths and a Lie is a great alternative to “How was your day?”. Each person thinks of and shares three things about their day, but only two are true. The rest of the family tries to guess which is the lie. Now you’ve got two things you can talk more in-depth about. Another idea is to have a ‘teach me’ moment where everyone in the family has a turn to teach the others something they learned that day. Your child can teach you how to form the letter B or play the virus game or retell a folktale they learned. These strategies give opportunities to find out more about specific things. Rethinking the questions we ask can be helpful too: “What was one thing you learned today?”, “Tell me about a time you laughed today?”, “Who did you play with at recess?” There are many questions which draw out more in-depth responses than “How was your day?” Use them as conversation starters at dinner or bedtime.
What if your child is not having an easy start to the school year? Every child will have a year when things don’t start off smoothly, and some children generally have a rough start to new experiences. Emotions can run high and be expressed in numerous ways, from inappropriate behavior to timid withdrawal and everything in between. One piece of advice frequently shared by teachers and school counselors is to avoid “interviewing for pain”. Don’t ask your child questions that encourage negative reports: “Was your day any better than yesterday?”, “Did XX child act out again today?”, “Did anything upset you today?” Your tone is important at these timeseven a neutral question can be asked in a tone that confirms you want to hear the negative. Of course, you want to know if your child is in distress. The difficulty is that reporting negative information can easily become a pattern, and your child can learn that what you really listen to are the stories about the “bad” kid or the unpleasant times. If your child is in distress, those stories will emergeyou won’t have to pry them out. It’s also a good thing for your child to be able to sort and brainstorm their experiences and feelings independently for a bit.
My final bit of advice was given to me by my child’s principal a few years ago when she was having a particularly difficult beginning of school. My daughter often experiences the negative before she can find the positive in a situation. Her principal told me that there are times in our children’s lives when the best thing we can do is to ride the waves with them. For some problems, we are not meant to convince our children it’s not so bad or to dive in and fix things for them. Instead our job is to simply listen to and travel alongside them through the challenging times. It took concerted effort not to ask more when my daughter told me about what wasn’t going well. Instead I just listened, nodded, occasionally repeated what she had said back to her, showed less emotion. And it workedsoon she was able to switch the subject on her own and talk about something elsetopics I could then ask her more about or show more emotion about. It was difficult and it took some time, but she found her balance and strength and moved forward. Sometimes you’ve got to ride the waves.
Hopefully you can imagine some of these suggestions fitting in with your family personalities and routines. I go back to the beginning and note that it is normal for your child to fall apart at home and worthwhile to know it won’t last forever. You will always be your children’s safe spot. Here’s hoping you find great ways to decompress and connect as a family over the long weekend.