Intentionally “Pre-Paving” for a Successful Start to a New School Year

Aug 30, 2021

It’s that time of year!  Do you have a child either starting school for the first time or headed back?  I have parent clients on both ends of the school spectrum —sending kids off to college and preparing to send their first to kindergarten.  One who was dropping her son off at college for the first time shared that he was super anxious and second-guessing every decision.  Another client with a child just entering kindergarten shared that she was the anxious one.

If you have kids just starting school, moving up from elementary school to middle school, or into high school or college — you and your child may be having the same worries and anxiety.  As parents, the first thing to know is that what you are both experiencing is completely normal!

Our brains prefer that things stay safe and comfortable.  They do NOT like when things are new, unknown, and unpredictable.  We spent a lot of time on the phone with our son during his first semester in college.  Not only was college a new experience, but he chose a program that took him abroad his first semester and was experiencing a new country and culture at the same time — an anxiety-producing situation on steroids, for him and for us!  We kept reminding him that his anxiety was just his brain freaking out and that it was totally normal.  It was a tough first month, but we all made it through it and he’s now much stronger for it.  

Most children have not developed the ability to manage or articulate their feelings, which is why you may see them acting out or unusually reactive leading up to a new experience.  Remember that they learn from you!  This is an area where self-awareness as a parent is critical.  You may already have your own emotions about the upcoming transition and if you’re not mindful of managing your own state, you can quickly get sucked into your child’s anxious emotions.

If you find that you are getting anxious yourself, one simple thing you can do is to tell yourself that it’s totally normal for you to get anxious over the upcoming transition.  It’s just your brain doing it’s job.  Nothing has gone wrong.  This can help calm your brain down, so you can then set an intention.

Setting intentions as a parent are super helpful.  Consider them as a GPS for your brain that keeps you on the right track.  If you set an intention ahead of time to remain calm and compassionate while your child is anxious and reactive, you are much more likely to stay the course and focus on helping your child through this time and avoid conflict with them because you are both anxious and reactive.  You want to be the lighthouse to their stormy sea of emotions, Model-Managing your emotions so you can help them with theirs.  

When you stay calm and empathetic, you have a much better chance of helping your child stay open and receptive so they don’t shut down.  From there, see if you can get them talking.  Your goal is to let them know that it’s okay to be anxious, and talk about what is making them nervous, worried, or anxious.  Stay curious and ask questions.  If you’re not sure how, check out my post on Active Listening

Normalizing their worry and talking about it can help calm their heightened emotions, but if you have a chance — take them down a path of imagining what is the best possible outcome.  Again, do this by asking questions.  The minute you switch to giving advice you take a chance they will shut down.  Here’s a possible question: If you could imagine that this was going to be a great or amazing year, what would it look like?  See if you can make it a fun game of all the wild and amazing things that could happen.  You can throw in a few outrageous things to get them laughing.  If you have littles, it could be that their teacher is a talking giraffe.

The brain doesn’t know the difference between real and imagined. If they are open to it, help paint pictures in their mind.  For example: for littles just starting kindergarten, ask if they can imagine how funny and nice the bus driver is and how they will love riding on the bus.  Then ask them to think about how much they like their new teacher and the fun games they play on the first day, how cool it is to go to the library and how much they enjoy the playground and recess.

Their brain has been filtering for what can go wrong in an effort to keep them safe, and this is what has been making them anxious.  The point of the questions is to get them filtering for what can go right.  And if your mind has been going down the same negative rabbit hole, I recommend that you start by asking yourself this question before you even have a conversation with them!

Once you have gotten them thinking about some great things that could happen, ask them if they can remember the funny things or think of something else when they start feeling anxious.  Give them a better thought ahead of time that they can use in the moment.  

For the older kids, it might just be the understanding that it’s totally normal for their brain to freak out and make them feel anxious. That’s just their brain doing it’s job. Depending on their age and understanding, you can help them set intentions that they are going to have a great experience.

Studies show that over 95% of the thoughts we think are repeats of thoughts we’ve had before — kind of like the “same old, same old”. Our brain is naturally wired to do this so it can be efficient and we can automate certain activities.  Remember what it was like to learn to drive a car and how many different things you had to think about all at once?  It was super stressful, but eventually it all became automated so now you don’t even have to think about it.

There are times that the drive to repeat and automate thoughts can be helpful, but it’s not helpful when they are thoughts that are making us anxious and worried.  This is where intentions can make a difference.  Intentions are like an internal GPS to help us pick a new destination.  Without them our mind wanders and has a mind of its own, focusing on the same repetitive thoughts that make us anxious and worried.

Setting intentions ahead of time gives our brain a new destination and helps it start filtering and focusing on thoughts that support your new destination and intention.  To take it one step further, you can put up sticky notes and set reminders on your phone to go off so you see and remind yourself to think of your new destination and intention.  Where your attention and focus go is what will grow in your life.  Help your children learn the power of setting positive intentions to purposefully pre-pave the way for great experiences.

If your children are worried or anxious about an upcoming transition and you’re not sure how best to help them, my guess is that you didn’t learn how to deal with worry or anxiety as a child either.  Stop the cycle!  Check out my new free video training series on 3 Steps to Stop the Worry and help your children learn these invaluable life skills now.

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