The smell of fresh paper and brand new pencils linger in the air. New kicks and threads line the closets, and backpacks and lunch bags are clean and still hold their crisp lines. This can only mean one thing: it’s back-to-school time. And I, for one, am that parent who rejoices at this time of year. I admit it’s bittersweet sending the kiddos back to school because, for one, it means they are growing up and I don’t relish homework or test prep. But it is so so good to get them back on a schedule and a routine, and school helps tremendously with that. Also, I get my house and home office back because a quiet house, y’all. It does wonders, I’m telling you.
So what’s the point of this post? I mean what can I say that hasn’t already been said a million times? The last thing I want to do is tell you how to prep because you are a parent. You’ve done this a million times and are a pro at doing what you do! I think today, I want to talk about handling the new. Back to school evokes mixed emotions in both kids and parents for a reason. No matter what the situation looks like for you, back to school means something new is about to kick off. And whenever there is new, the first emotion we tend to feel is nervousness, right? There is an unknown about what the new school year will bring, especially if there is a new school involved. New school year means new grade, new teachers, new expectations. It means a readjustment to everyday routine and schedule. Heck, it could even mean a new bus route or a new way home and to school entirely. New supplies. New clothes. New shoes. New backpack. New. New. New. And for some of us, while some excitement often surrounds the first day of school, there is also something called the anxiety. Here’s how we handle that in this house.
As I am writing these words, one movie often comes to mind when thinking about any major change- Inside Out. This is my favorite Pixar movie for a reason. For one, it’s the most relatable for my family as we are military and move around quite often. For those who haven’t seen it, I will try not to ruin it for you, but it’s been out for a minute and to be honest, you’ve had time. Inside Out tells the story of a pre-teen named Riley through the eyes of five of her emotions- joy, sadness, disgust, anger, and fear. The head of this quintet of loveable feels is Joy whose sole mission in life is to keep Riley happy all the time. In every situation. Inevitably, this is unrealistic as it is natural to feel sad, angry, disgusted, or afraid when the situation calls for it. Riley’s family moves from Minnesota to California and her parents appreciate how well Riley handles the move, choosing to keep her positive outlook. In an unfortunate (or fortunate- depending on how you look at it) turn of events, Joy and Sadness slip out of Riley’s consciousness leaving Fear, Disgust, and Anger at the helm, and as you can guess, chaos ensues, causing Riley to make all her decisions based on these three emotions and leading to some almost disastrous consequences for her and her family. The moral of the story is that one needs all their emotions, and to express all their emotions, to be a fully-functioning human that makes good choices. Our emotions are there for a reason, and to try to be happy, or sad, or fearful, or angry, or disgusted all the time is unhealthy and can cause us to do things that aren’t great for us or those around us.
Why do I bring this up? Because a new school year can evoke the same feelings in our kiddos. As parents, we are excited for them, and we want them to be excited as well. We want them to be positive because a positive attitude allows them to experience the best that a new school year has to offer. But what about the other feelings that creep up surrounding the concept of new? Why don’t we ever tell our kiddos, “be realistic with how you feel?” That perhaps being honest and showing everything they are thinking or saying everything they wish to say might get them in trouble somehow, that it could go against expectations?
Or maybe that’s just me.
This year I vow to think a little differently and to encourage my kiddos to do the same. In this last year, we had a lot of change happen in a very short amount of time. We capped it off by buying a new house in a new school zone which meant a change in school routine for our kiddos. While my youngest is staying at her old school (we refused to move her again for the third time in less than a year), my oldest is staying at his middle school but will get a different bus route. The middle will be experiencing the biggest new this year with her entering middle school. The middle has always been the one to take a little longer to adjust to a new situation, especially one in which she feels as though she has no control. We’ve talked about middle school a lot, especially in the last few weeks as the first day of school creeps upon us. She said stated time and again that she is not excited because “it’s school and I (she) hates school.” It’s hard to know this from the outside looking in as she finds it easy to make friends and gets good grades. One might think she is being dramatic. But the middle frequently experiences anxiety surrounding the need to make everything perfect, as does the baby from time to time. The middle has a behavioral history with school, stemming from her toddler years. And it was not uncommon for me to get phone calls and/or texts regarding her inappropriate behavioral choices. We finally figured out that her anxiety and her ADHD caused an emotional clash in her mind, where she had a hard time getting started on any work that she felt she might not do well in, or that might be too hard for her. And once she did get started, it was just about time to transition to a new activity which then upset her because she wanted to finish what she started. That’s when the meltdowns, the tantrums, and the straight-up leaving the classroom began. Thankfully that’s all behind us as she has gotten older, but there’s still that anxiety that lingers and although she’s not one to express herself openly about it, I think she might be concerned that somehow those feelings will find their way out. And middle school can be a scary place for that to happen.
While school is not a strength for my oldest, at least in certain subjects, the biggest thing he is nervous about with this new school year is making friends. It was never hard for him to do so before but this school offers a different demographic than what he is used to. And that in addition to the fact that it’s middle school, and kids are all in different stages of development has also been a harder pill for him to swallow. My oldest is very small for his age. In fact, his younger sister is often mistaken for his older sister. Furthermore, he is still interested in the same stuff that interested him in elementary school. He still enjoys playing with his toys and engaging in pretend play. I believe that he hasn’t found anyone who shares his same interests and that has frustrated him. He also isn’t great with initiating conversation to meet new people, often relying on folks to approach him first. And recently, he’s acted as though he doesn’t know someone when someone does recognize him or approach him. Autism can manifest itself in social awkwardness and anxiety, and as he ages, we see this more and more in him. So for him, a new school year means having to walk the halls alongside people who maybe don’t understand him which further encourages him not to make any attempts to make new friends.
While my hope is for my kids to love school, to welcome a new school year with open arms, and have zero trouble with making friends or with their academics, the reality is that this is not always the case and that that positive attitude that was preached so often in my house isn’t always going to be the one that is on display. And that is okay! I have learned that with my kids, the expectations have to be as realistic as possible. Of course, we always talk about the hows and whys behind those feelings that perhaps illicit some concern, but we encourage them to be honest always. This way we can talk about them and work through some of those emotions that could make the return to school more difficult. We also remember that it takes a village, so while something coming from Mom and Dad comes across as stale and maybe a little rehearsed (like we have to say this because we are Mom and Dad) perhaps a similar message coming from their godmother or a family friend may hold a little more weight. I’m not mad at this because as long as it gets little ears to listen, am I right? And when emotions are as mixed or more on the negative side, I do what I can to soften the blow. School for us starts next week so we wanted to make the final week of summer vacation as much and laid back as possible. I had stressed the importance of keeping up with their reading and school work throughout the summer as well as doing chores before screen time or before going out to the pool or before engaging in another fun activity. This week, we are chill. Yes, reading is still important and chores have to get done but it isn’t the priority. We want them to have fun, to have one last hurrah before school starts. And maybe, just maybe, they will be more relaxed once that first day comes around.
So while we hope our kiddos don’t pull a Riley and lead with fear, disgust, and anger going into a new school year, we know that they are necessary to explore alongside sadness and joy when experiencing something new. Our goal is that our children learn to embrace all they are feeling and can regulate those emotions so they can respond to them appropriately. Positivity for us means finding the good. School isn’t always fun. There are pressures and expectations there that even most adults would find difficult. Still, it is in this learning experience that our kids grow, explore their interests, and find their passions. And when we encourage our children to exist in all their emotions, they are better able to respond to those pressures and expectations.
As we finish up (or get started on- depending on where you live), our back-to-school shopping and preparations, let’s not forget to add in some time to talk with our kids to help them emotionally unpack and prepare for the new that lies ahead. Because the best new accessory that they can wear on their first day of school isn’t the new Jordans or the trendy new backpack. It’s a head full of confidence.
Let’s own this school year!