As the school year looms and gets underway, I am having many conversations with friends and clients about how their children are feeling in anticipation of the new year. There are many different contexts involved in these conversations – children moving up to middle or high school; children switching schools; new kindergartners; and basic school aversion or excitement. Usually the anxious thinking and emotions discussed in these conversations revolve around things that are unknown. While we are aware of and can plan for details within our household morning routine – we cannot be assured of the things we don’t yet know.
Parents are keenly tuned in to how their kids are feeling. This kind of attention to others and empathy is a beautiful part of parenting. I hear about beautiful interactions in which parents inquire about their children’s feelings, thoughts, and wonderings about the new school year.
Yet, in some of these conversations, I find myself wondering (and sometimes asking) – does the excitement, worry, stress, and/or anxiety you are describing belong to your child? Or does it belong to you? Or perhaps a little of both? Are you asking questions that your child never even thought about? Are your worries and wonderings the same as your childs?
And how can we learn to recognize the difference?
Children who have had difficult experiences at school, or who tend to perseverate on the what ifs that their minds hand them can ride a roller coaster of expressive or internalized behavioral challenges. Chances are, their parents and families are along for the ride and have learned along the way how their child will react to certain situations. In this type of scenario, parents will work hard to prevent such struggles or difficulties by thinking through their own set of what ifs, planning for, and talking through things with their child, school, partners, and selves.
A very important component of parenting in this type of situation is to recognize that when we engage in our own ‘what if’ thinking in the service of planing for or preventing – the emotions of those imagined future situations will show up today. Because our minds are powerful. And when we imagine the what ifs, we feel them too.
And we may well be right about the challenges the school year holds for our children. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if we are wrong? Can we engage this type of curiosity, with the idea that we would rather be happy, than right?
Take a close look, as you try to plan for or prevent the future. Are you bringing your own set of emotions into conversations with your child? Check in with your body, your pace of speaking, your sense of certainty that you are right about the future. Listen to your questions that you ask – are you leading or assuming your child is worried? If they aren’t – and you ask them if they are – now they will be. Are you asking questions about a future ‘what if’ that is not a certainty? It is entirely possible that your child is not thinking about the start of school as often as you are. Or with as many questions.
As you work to recognize this, remember that not sharing is okay too. If you start to see that these anxious thoughts are yours, and you want to continue to plan for the potentials – you can make that plan without sharing. It’s like the cash in the drawer – there for if you need it, but no one else knows.