Families, Inc. therapist Dr. Dana Watson has been featured regularly on KFIN’s Breakfast Club to discuss maintaining a healthy mindset. The following is a transcript from a recent interview she had with KFIN's Breakfast Club's Brandon Baxter.
Q: Back to school time… lots of changes, lots of rough patches, lots of finding our footing again after summer break. How can parents prepare and help their children?
Transitions can be hard! And even good transitions can create stress! Give your children and yourself grace and time to prepare emotionally and physically. For most kiddos and parents, we eventually get into the swing of things within the first month or so.
The good news is that children are generally flexible and can adapt with a little time and encouragement. Plus, most teachers and school staff are experts at providing the elements that make them feel welcome, safe, and prepared for learning and socializing.
Q: Some kids seem to be more anxious about going back to school than others. It might be a combination of Covid and all the other crazy viruses, the threat of school violence, or maybe just being away from their family and home. Let’s talk about anxiety in children…
Feelings of anxiety are 100% normal and should be expected during times of transition. While a lot of people think of separation anxiety as a problem that affects toddlers and preschoolers, we also see it in much older kids.
And some kids seem to be more naturally inclined toward anxious thoughts and feelings than others. While most people experience some level of worry, high levels of anxiety can be disruptive socially, emotionally, and physically.
Q: What are some signs of an anxious child?
When you are worried, you often don’t have an appetite (or, like me, stress eat!), it’s hard to get to sleep or stay asleep, they can be clingy and irritable, and they can have physical symptoms like headaches or stomachaches. Anxiety takes a lot of energy, so often they will want to isolate and avoid normal daily activities.
Q: What can parents do if their child is particularly anxious?
It’s important that children attend school. Missing school because of anxiety robs your child of the chance to gain mastery of skills, make friends, enjoy a successful school day and develop a relationship with the teacher.
The parent-teacher relationship is so key to helping kids thrive. If you notice your child struggling academically, socially, or emotionally, reach out to your child’s teacher. If you have questions about the classroom or your child’s progress, reach out! You do not need to wait for the first parent-teacher conference to make contact. If the anxiety is significant and doesn’t reduce after a while, the parent should always seek help from a professional.
It’s better to intervene early than to have your child (and family) struggle all year.
Q: Most parents agree that mornings are HARD. What can parents do to help their children in the mornings?
The best thing you can do to make your mornings go more smoothly is to prepare. Some of the ways parents can prepare would be laying out school clothes, packing lunches, finishing homework and repacking bags – and the number one thing you can do to make your mornings go more smoothly is to go to bed on time.
The back to school transition can take a lot of energy out of your child. Don’t start them at a disadvantage. Make sure they go to sleep early to capture as much rest as they can each night.
And if your mornings feel rushed, the parent can get up first to dress and prepare and then be able to keep the child on a tight schedule. I know in my household, the reduction in drama and stress is worth my husband and I getting up early… there is nothing more crazy and stressful than all of us running around fussy and tense.
Getting up 20 minutes earlier may make all the difference in whether your child is emotionally and physically prepared to succeed in their day.
Q: You always say routines are important for children – well, for all of us. Tell me how routines can help children going back to school…
Parents can ensure that their child has a predictable routine for homework, family time, meals, bath, and sleep. Knowing what to expect and being rested and prepared can help all family members cope with the demands of school.
Being a parent can be a lot of fun. But our responsibilities as parents are to do the “hard things,” such as making and maintaining a schedule for our children and our family. This also means saying ‘no’ to too much screen time, helping children to understand why too much screen time can be detrimental to them, as well as why homework, brushing teeth, bathing, eating well, and getting good sleep are vital to their immediate and long-term success.
The best way to make sure our children take care of themselves now and as adults is for them to see us taking care of ourselves in the same ways that we want for them.
Q: Sometimes it’s hard to know what is going on with kids, especially when they are pre-teens and teens. They don’t always like to talk or share information. Any advice for how to navigate that?
Connect with parents in your child’s peer group and with their teachers to ensure you have information about activities and any issues that may be surfacing with your child or their peer group.
Q: How about at the end of the day when your child comes home? I remember when I was younger, I would come home exhausted but also pretty cranky. It took me a while to decompress.
Oh, for sure. I feel the same as an adult. Even adults need time to decompress. Kids are basically asked to hold in their emotions all day. I mean, we spend years helping them develop strategies to manage their emotions and behavior!
But undoubtedly at least one thing happens every day that makes them feel worried, sad, or confused. And those big feelings will often come spilling out in the safety of their home. So we can help them decompress by creating a predictable after school routine, including a snack and some downtime. And when your child does have a meltdown, stay close and stay calm. The storm will pass, and then we can help them work through the emotions behind it.
Q: How can parents help their children navigate social relationships?
First, be a great model for your child. As children develop, they learn what to do (and not do) from the friendships they observe. If your child grows up seeing a parent (or parents) in constant conflict with other adults, they are going to learn that is how we speak to others when we are mad, that’s how we behave when we feel hurt.
There’s a saying that “attitudes are caught, not taught.” Children can also “catch” how to relate to others from the friendships they observe. For young children, this might mean watching the adults around them interact. As kids grow, they begin to identify the qualities they like in a friend and seek out friends with these characteristics and behaviors.
Caregivers play an important role in helping children understand appropriate and supportive behavior in friendships by modeling our own healthy friendships. For example, perhaps you’ve made a meal for a friend who’s going through a hard time. Showing your child how you care for your own friends is a great way to start conversations about caring for their friends.
Teaching children to approach others with empathy and compassion can help them to interact with all types of children — and make all types of friends!
Q: What about if your child has problems or a conflict with another child? How do we help them when this happens?
Ugh. As a parent, it can be difficult to see our children unhappy or hurt because of social situations. Maybe you remember a time when you were your child’s age and you had similar difficulties making or keeping friends. Sharing these stories with your child can show them that challenges in friendships are normal — and that you can be a source of support during hard times.
If your child has a tough argument with a friend, offer to talk about the issue together and try to understand what has happened. Talking through what happened can help children navigate tricky situations with friends in the future. Let them know they can disagree and still be friends.
It can be hard to see your child experience the ups and downs of friendships. But the friendships your child has in their younger years will prepare them for the more complex relationships they may have in the future.
Your support and care are important parts of helping your children learn how to be caring friends throughout their lives.
Q: You always say to make daily conversations and check-ins a priority with your children before hard situations happen. I think I see the value in that more than ever as my son gets older. The conversations get easier too now that we are in the routine of talking. I love it.
Can you say more about how to communicate with your child?
Start now. Be intentional about talking to your kids, at least 10 minutes a day. Face to face, dinner time, or car time… focused time where you are asking them questions, listening, sharing your thoughts and feelings.
By teaching them how to communicate with you now you are preparing them to be so much more comfortable in communicating with you later when the much harder topics arise.
I ask my kids to tell me “two hots and a not.” They tell me two things that went right and one thing that wasn’t so hot. It’s just something I made up that we have done for years. It's predictable and we do it every day, so they are thinking all day about what they’re going to remember and tell me. Their friends even get in the car and love to chat away.
Q: What if parents have concerns about how their child is doing emotionally and academically? Like if something just doesn’t seem right. What is the first step they should take?
Parents with concerns can contact the mental health provider in their child’s school (or Families, Inc!) who can offer an evaluation of your child’s functioning and work with you to find strategies that will benefit your child and your family.