>Dear Dr. Hackney,
I need your help!!! My six year old daughter Amy is having some anxiety related to starting school soon. She has been having difficulty going to bed at night; this seems to be the only time it manifests itself. As soon as I move to leave the room, she starts fidgeting and says she needs to go to the bathroom. When we return to her room, she says she has to go again. Last night, we stopped the whole process and talked to her about what will happen the first day of school and also explained we are meeting her teacher next week. Is it too much to expect to have her get on the bus the first day? I worry that if she doesn’t do it the first day I’m setting her up to depend on me everyday. She has a very good friend who will be riding the bus with her, but I’m not sure that will be enough to motivate her. We are thinking we may look into therapy to help her deal with anxieties.
Mother of two, ages 3 and 6 years
I am sorry to hear this has been hard already. My older daughter had very similar nights (and mornings) when she was a bit younger. I’m going to write about the global things first, then more practical.
Between now and the time school starts, think lots of downtime and empathy. Downtime is unscheduled, low key playtime. It is fine to have friends over and to go out, but I wouldn’t run everyone ragged in the last few days. When children are tired, their worries seem overwhelming. Downtime also lends itself to more open conversation. I would talk about school with her when she brings it up or when she seems particularly anxious – just like you did the other night – stopping everything and talking about her first day.
The empathy component is to remember that her worries are hers and they are real, and the reasoning, reassuring and logic do little to actually help. Empathy (labeling emotions, talking her through and suggesting ways to cope) allows her to own those feeling and validate them so you and she are on the same page. Empathy helps children to calm because they feel understood. So, first approach with empathy before the fix.
Prepare her as best you can, which you are already doing. Talk her through the daily schedule, and answer questions whenever needed. You might go play on the school playground or have playdates with other kids going to the same school. When you meet the teacher, you might ask if you can take a picture of her and the teacher together, and then get it printed that day, so she can have it to hold onto until school starts. You might also use the picture to make a craft project – a poster for her room or a card to give the teacher on the first day, etc. or do both with copies.
Before you meet the teacher next week, you might sit with Amy to find out if she has anything she wants the teacher to know or wants you to ask the teacher. If it were me, I’d tell her tomorrow to think about those things and then talk about it over the few days before meeting the teacher. This gives Amy a sense of control of the meeting. She has her questions answered.
Talk to her about the bus idea and how fun you remember the bus to be and games/songs you remember while riding with your friends. If another good friend rides the bus with her, maybe you all could meet 10 minutes before and board together. Maybe you could assure her that you will step on to be sure she sits with someone she knows. It is best if she can face it and get on the bus the first day but don’t be defeated if not. It may be that she takes and few days to feel confident about school and then can better face the bus. If the bus doesn’t happen the first day, I would plan a goal date that it will, such as the second day or Monday of the second week. Something realistic so it doesn’t turn into a year. Getting on with a friend might be the thing – especially if you make a date out of it.
Remember too that your attitude goes a long way, and she is reading you more than you know. If you are apprehensive and worried, the morning won’t go well; she gets that, at least to some extent. So, put on your brave face and smile through her upset. You want to send the message that the bus and school are safe and fun places, it is where she should be, and that you have no doubt she will enjoy herself and want to ride the bus everyday. If you can start to anticipate that it will all go WELL, it will go all the better.
You might check out Helping Your Anxious Child: A Step by Step Guide for Parents by Wignall, Spence, Cobham and Rapee.
Rene Hackney, PhD.
Parenting Playgroups, Inc.