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Saturday, September 6, 2014

A Story for the First Day of School

First day of school.

I'm at the corner waiting for the bus.

It was suppose to get here at 4:00. It's 4:20.

My anxiety is slowly building.

Not really worrying, I know the schedule never goes as planned on the first day back. But my son has now been on the bus for an hour. I know he's hungry; he'll have eaten little lunch or snack because his appetite was suppressed by the medication that he takes for ADHD. His blood sugar will be low, and he will be irritable. I know this. What I don't know is how his day went, what his fifth grade teachers were like, whether any friends were in his classes...  I trying to keep my cool, but it takes effort - a lot of effort.  I hated fifth grade.

Finally I see the bus over the hill.  Here he comes.  He looks okay, but it's hard to tell.  "I'm not going to school tomorrow," his first words.  I have learned enough in my 11 years of parenting and 20 years as a psychologist to keep my mouth shut.  I stay quiet. I wait for it...

It doesn't come.  The information that is.  Instead, what arises from the graceful mouth of my beautiful boy, first quietly, then not, is a growing tsunami of upset ostensibly about his immediate NEED for a MacBook Pro, because "EVERYONE" in the fifth grade has one." Can I have I one?", he begs and begs.  We have had this discussion many times; he knows he is not getting the computer until middle school.  But he goes on for so long and with such intensity (not just with words, but cries, and thrown objects) that now litter his bedroom floor, and a pair of broken glasses that thankfully are easily repaired, that I find myself wondering ever more intensely about his day at school.  What to do in the midst of a tantrum...let it run its course.  Do not feed it with words or reactions or even limits. Just wait. So I do.  I know the information will come. In time.

It does. It takes a couple of hours, not for him to calm down--that happened before dinner--but for his defenses to come down enough to talk to me about the day. It happens, as always, around bedtime. Sure enough the information starts to pour out: the teachers are really hard, there is going to be a lot of work and he's not sure he can handle it.  Maybe online schooling would be better he thinks. None of his friends are in his classes (maybe, maybe not I suspect). He misses a fourth grade teacher who adored him and whom he adored. He's scared, and sad, and today he felt a bit lonely. 

I remember that from fifth grade. I had to move to a new school because of redistricting.  For the first time I had five teachers, one for each subject, instead of just one for all subjects.  I had to take the school bus for the first time. I didn't know anyone in my homeroom, not that I recall anyway.  who knows, it was 35 years ago for goodness sake!  As I start to tell him these memories, or stories, whichever they may be, he grows calmer. We laugh thinking about 11 year old me and the saga that was my fifth grade year.  I left out the memories of the initial signs of puberty, crushes on guys, and drama so as not to totally scare my child.  

Now he is ready to cuddle, to be comforted.  Not before.  Now he is ready to talk about his fears and worries. Now he is ready to connect and ultimately to begin thinking about strategies he can use to cope with the challenges and stressors he sees coming his way. 

I know that the next few days will be rough, but that with time he will settle into the year, make new friends, bond with one or more of these teachers who will shape and mold,
oops(!), I mean guide, him for the next 9 months.

My job now is to quietly wait. To reassure when appropriate, to validate his experience, to acknowledge what he feels he is facing. And herein lies the wisdom - it is in doing those things, as I bide my time, that his adjustment will come. In this I trust. After all, it's happened every year so far.

If the first day of your child's school engendered any of these qualities or experiences for you, here are some questions you might ask yourself as a guide to manage your parenting in these early weeks of September:

What was life like for me when I was that age?
What challenges did I face that year?
What gifts?
How well am I listening?
How am I doing acknowledging and validating my child's experience?
Is my child’s upset making me uncomfortable, and if so, why might that be?
Did I remember to tell my child that I love him/her today? Did I show him/her that I do?

And then, and perhaps most importantly, just wait. Things will calm down. Just give it time.

Jennifer Jackson Holden, Psy.D. is managing director of the Paoli, Pennsylvania office of the Center for Psychological Services. www.centerpsych.com

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