Do you remember the episode of The Brady Bunch when Marsha is nervous about the first day of high school? It’s one of my favorites. My husband found the episode on YouTube recently and we kindly requested (actually insisted) our soon-to-be high school freshman watch it with us.
We laughed along with Marsha as Peter’s volcano erupted on the members of the snobby Booster club. We found Marsha’s attempt at maturity (i.e. calling her brother “Gregory” instead of Greg) hysterical. But there’s nothing funny about a child terrified of a new school year. Whether it’s nursery school or high school, kindergarten or college, back-to-school blues may be a reality for our kids.
Any change involves loss. For kids starting a new school year there are plenty of losses: loss of a familiar environment (even if they are in the same school there are new teachers and classrooms) … loss of friends and classmates … loss of summer. In the TV show, Marsha’s most difficult loss was loss of identity. She wondered if she would be as popular and successful in high school as she was in middle school. She was in the midst of grief and she didn’t even know it. But all the signs were there. She had the physical symptoms of grief (stomach ache, tightness in the throat), the emotions of grief (anxiety, fear, sadness), the behaviors of grief (acting like a different kid), and the social side effects of grief (trying to fit in with the wrong crowd).
Perhaps you notice other signs of grief in your children, such as crying, trouble sleeping, excessive clinging, regressive behaviors (i.e. thumb-sucking and bed wetting), mood swings, lashing out and back talk, bad dreams, appetite changes, trouble concentrating, or confusion due to mixed feelings. They may be nervous and excited at the same time (my 8-year-old calls this “nervcited”). The days leading up to school and the first few weeks are when we are likely to see a wide-range of school-related grief manifestations.
The key to beating the back-to-school blues is to acknowledge all the losses associated with starting a new school year and then grieve them one by one. Looking through the lens of loss and grief allows us a deeper appreciation of our children’s struggles (and our own).
So how can we help ourselves and our kids successfully transition into a new school year? Here are five practical suggestions:
1. Validate feelings instead of judging them. In an attempt to soothe our child we may say, “don’t be sad” or “don’t cry.” Rather than telling our child how to feel we can normalize their emotions by saying something like, “It can be hard to start a new grade. I would be nervous too.” We can share stories of when we were their age and were anxious, cried, or threw up in class.
2. Engage in activities that allow for open dialogue. It can be hard to get kids to talk when we sit down and say, “We need to talk.” Spend time together playing ball or a board game. Eat at least one meal together. Read books or watch movies that have themes of change.
3. Don’t jump into extracurricular activities right away. Marsha made the mistake of joining too many clubs because of her fear of not being popular. Overscheduling a child in the midst of a new school year can add to the already existing anxieties and not leave enough unstructured time to adjust to the transition.
4. Start a new school year ritual together. At the end of the first day or week of school go to the beach together, get an ice cream or cook a favorite meal. Create a moment you can all look forward to year after year.
5. Inform the school nurse about your child’s worries and how they may manifest in physical symptoms. We don’t hesitate to speak with our child’s teacher, but we often forget to include the school nurse in those conversations. Our child may end up in the nurse’s office complaining of physical symptoms (belly-aches, headaches, etc.) that are really grief reactions.
As parents we can have so many emotions around this time of year. Some of us lament the end of summer and grieve the loss of our “baby” as we wonder how they could grow up so fast. Some of us are happy to return to the school year routines and appreciate a bit of alone time. I suspect most of us have mixed feelings. We are at one moment grateful to witness our child growing up but also feel that gut-wrenching knot in our stomach when we drop them off and wave goodbye.
We can’t freeze time and keep our kids young and innocent forever. But we can help prevent them from erupting like Peter’s volcano by creating a space for grief and modeling good grief. That will set the stage for our children to flourish way beyond the school years.
Cheryl Amari, M.A., C.T., is a grief educator and the founder/owner of GriefTeach; griefteach.com. She offers a unique and creative approach to grief with education, consulting and coaching services for all types of loss.