Like many of you reading Lion’s Whiskers, both my kids started new schools this week. At my house, surprisingly little drama occurred in the days prior to the first day of school. Unlike years previous, we had actually completed all the school shopping, the kids had cleaned their rooms, and I knew the exact bus schedule. I’m wise enough now as a parent, however, to not assume anything about how my kids might react the night before school starts. The same goes for the night before Halloween and all the costume changes that entails. The countdown began.
By mid-afternoon, my daughter started to hyperventilate about starting middle school. I immediately started taking the kind of deep breaths I’d needed to when birthing her. I did my best to calm my own anxiety about my girl entering the potential minefield that middle school can sometimes be for girls. I’ve counseled enough girls previously who’ve been bullied to know about those often angst-filled years when identity, cliques, and class structure collide. Middle school for me was all about being in the “Top Three Girls” club. I kid you not. It was pretty much all about making friends with either Anne or Trina, they were consistently #1 and #2 most popular. One fine spring day, I finally clawed my way to #3, as was decreed on a crumpled note passed around the entire 6th grade classroom. I thought “Wow, I’ve finally made it!” I didn’t know then how precarious such social games can be, and how fragile one’s self-esteem when you roll the dice and decide to play. I’ve also learned as a parent/therapist of adolescent children to not make assumptions about what my kids’ experience is or will be. And to ask if they want my advice before offering it—which has taken some serious restraint on my part! So, I asked my daughter, “Do you want my advice about how to think about tomorrow?” “No, thanks!” was her polite response.
At dinner, exhausted and at a loss, I decided to delegate the parenting to my husband. He’s way less high strung and was never a preteen girl. “You’ll be fine,” was his advice to our daughter. I next turned to our son, who had most recently navigated the same middle school hallways and social scene. His advice was brilliant. Much better than anything I could have come up with, short of reminding her to reframe her worry as excitement about what lay ahead. (You may want to read my last post A Hurricane is Coming! about cognitive reframing to understand what I mean.) He said, “You shouldn’t hold your books too tight to your body. The kids who are relaxed do better in middle school. Try holding them at your side loosely. Like you look like you know what you’re doing and where you’re going. Life’s a lot better when you’re relaxed.” Without the benefit of a doctorate in psychology, he knows through life experience that when we relax our bodies, our minds often follow (and vice versa). He also added, “You are going to meet a lot of nice people. The hall monitors, especially, are always really kind and willing to redirect you in the direction you need to go.” He’s learned that what you expect, you get. Fortunately, he believes that the world is still a friendly place. He isn’t expecting people to be mean. I watched my daughter relax her shoulders, smile, and finally take the deep breath I’d advised her to take earlier in the day (when I hadn’t asked if she wanted my advice). It may have been less in what he said than in how he approached her. He wasn’t worried for her. He told her “Expect it will take about two weeks until you feel comfortable. It will probably be less than that even. Just enjoy it.” He didn’t have any story about mean girls, rejection, peer pressure, or bullying. He expects that she will be okay. Coming from her big brother, his advice was much more potent than any therapeutic intervention I could offer.
Sitting together before heading to bed, my girl poured out a few last-minute worries. I decided to push aside my own worry and practice the first rule of thumb for any good therapist: join with the person you’re listening to. Don’t try to make them feel or think anything that they aren’t in that moment. Just hear where they are at, without judgment or agenda. It’s part of building trust and rapport. Joining can also allow feelings to transform in healthy, sometimes unexpected, ways. So, I said simply “You know, it’s okay to be scared when starting something new.” After a few moments, with her permission to offer a bit of advice, I reiterated what I’ve taught both my kids: “Being scared and being excited can feel the same. Both are meant to help you be alert, pay attention, do your best, and not get lost in the hallways on your first day. Before going to bed, focus on just one thing about tomorrow that you are most excited about. Paint a picture in your mind of what you are looking forward to about tomorrow, like seeing a good friend in the hallway between classess or inviting you to sit together at lunch. The more details you can imagine, the better. Like what you are wearing, how good and relaxed you feel wearing your favorite new clothes, etc.” Then, I just held her and adopted my son’s belief: all will be well.
The next morning, I got up and made crepes for breakfast. This, too, is highly uncharacteristic of me to do given that I’m not much of a morning person. While mixing together the crepes, I heard my daughter ask her brother: “Are you excited about today? ‘Cause I am!” I felt immediate relief. The same kind of relief, followed by a deep belly sigh, that I felt the day she was born and she was handed to me in one perfect pink bundle. I knew in that moment: she’s going to be okay.
On their way out the door that morning, I asked my kids “Do you guys want me to walk with you to the bus stop given it’s your first day?” “No! We’re fine!” was their mutually adamant response. Turns out it’s me who now needs the courage to let go, to trust in their resilience and the kindness of others, and do some cognitive reframing myself: “It’s not scary, it’s exciting that my kids are growing up!”