The back to school period can be a challenging and stressful time for families. Many children feel like little boats bobbing about in the water of uncertainty, worry, apprehension or fear. Of course, to stop them being carried out to sea, those little boats need to be connected to a secure anchor. However, as a parent of 3 children, one of whom has just started 'big school' I can categorically say that around back to school time I certainly don't feel like a secure anchor, more like a wobbly jelly! Back to school, changing school or starting school transitions are difficult for us as parents because we worry about our children. Will Amy make friends at her new school? Will John be bullied because he has a disability? Will Lucy be scared when I leave her? Will I be able to afford to keep Matthew at that school with the increasing cost of uniform and other stuff?
My youngest daughter started 'big school' last week. In my 'wobbly jelly' moments I worried that she would be OK, make friends, not experience the anxiety she had in primary school and manage practically in light of some of the issues she struggles with around motor skills. Then I worried that she would pick up my worry, like the little sponge she is, and that this would make things worse! As I explained in a previous blog, Cara had a traumatic birth, which affected her attachment and contributed to her developing school-related anxiety in primary school. She overcame this and built her resilience by (as detailed here) developing a great understanding of her brain, body and emotions. This understanding has become part of her language now and she can articulate her emotions very well. When she was reflecting on how she was feeling about starting her new school, she decided that there wasn't a word to describe how she was feeling. She labelled the feeling 'nervitement', a combination of feeling nervous and excited at the same time.
Cara's experience is by no means unique. The transition to a new school or new class is potentially stressful and children's behaviour around this time of transition is best understood as a response to stress. When we are under stress we instinctively respond in one of the following ways - fight, flight or freeze. What does this look like in our children?
Fight response - Aggression, angry outbursts or arguments. This is a hard response to deal with as a parent, especially when you are dealing with your own stress. It can feel personal and intentional. It generally isn't!
Flight response - Running away, becoming upset or trying to avoid the source of stress, in this case school. The stress response is a biological one that causes physiological change. When your child says they have a sore head or sore tummy at stressful times like these, it may not just be a convenient excuse.
Freeze response - Not wanting to talk, going to their room, withdrawing. Sometimes, we don't notice when children are in freeze mode as their behaviour is not causing us to pay attention and they appear to be happy and content.
How each child experiences and responds to stress will be different, but the universal key to being able to manage stressful experiences is positive relationships. This is a time when children really need to use those relationships with their family, friends and teachers. However, it is often the time that they appear to be doing everything they can to push those they love and care for away! Children under stress are in distress, even though it may not sometimes appear that way. Their behaviour is not rational, nor indeed intentional, meaning they can behave ways that makes them very hard to like, never mind to love!
Like so many other children, Cara's first week of school was stressful. In primary school she had responded to school-related stress with a flight response - anxiety, wanting to avoid school, feeling sick, becoming upset. This time, however, her response was totally different. We were introduced to her fight response, which was quite out of character and quite disarming! When I drove her to school, which was what she wanted, she complained on seeing others get off the bus, "this is SO embarrassing!". It was my fault when she couldn't find her books or shoes. After one particularly stressful day, she kept shouting at me for no reason, then apologising after realising what she had said and done. After a while she became exacerbated and said "why am I like this?"
In the past my response would have been to tell her how unacceptable her behaviour was, that I would not be spoken to in that way and she needed to apologise at once. However, knowing that her behaviour was due to stress and out of her control meant that I did not take it personally this time. Giving her the answer to the question "why am I like this?" had made a difference in the past, so I reminded her about what she had learned. We discussed how we can 'flip the lid' in times of stress and how she had learned what helped her 'keep her lid on' - sleeping well, meditation, restricting the use of technology, eating well, exercising - all things that had kind of gone to pot over the summer! We had a laugh about how she would need to bring a hammer to school with her so she would hammer her ‘lid’ down when it starting coming loose. Although this was a bit of fun, she came up with an alternative to a hammer, a gentle tap on her head by her fingertips. This type of tool had helped her in the past, so hopefully it will again.
When she had dealt with school-related stress in the past she was a child, but she is now moving towards adolescence, a time of huge developmental change, not only in children’s bodies, but in their brains. These brain changes are what cause adolescents to be highly emotional, thrill seeking, risk taking and to seek social approval from their peers. The significant changes happening in children’s brain around the time of adolescence can change how they respond to stress differently, which possibly explained why Cara’s default stress response had changed from a flight response to a fight response.
Having awareness of how stress affects her and tools to deal with it has been invaluable for Cara and for other children that I have worked with. However, the best tool of all was the big hug and snuggle that Cara and I enjoyed after she discovered that she wasn't turning into a monster and I discovered that my wee girl might just manage this 'big school' journey OK after all.