By Jen Rapanos, LMSW, RYT
Today, my son enters the fourth grade. If it was a typical year there would be the usual jitters and anticipation of a new school year. But this year it’s different, this year we moved to a new town so this is his first day at his brand new school.
When a family moves, it can swiftly toss a child into a world completely outside of their comfort zone. Over the years I’ve worked with many children who’ve experienced significant moves at some point in their life. Often they describe their initial experience as being scary with a lot of uncertainty. Many children deal with significant bouts of sadness, anger and fear.
In the big picture with the right supports, we know that many of life’s challenges can be paired with opportunities to build resiliency. So what are some of those supports and what steps can a parent or caregiver take to help their child develop coping skills to manage through challenging times? I’d like to share with you how mindfulness lessons nurtured my son—helping him navigate his way through a challenging time in his young life…
My son is a somewhat sensitive and anxious child. He’s not one to jump into new social situations, he hangs back and observes until he feels really comfortable. He’s a thinker, his mind is constantly on the go analyzing and curious about the world around him. Our move was a big test for our son and the idea of attending a new school caused him a lot of worry and fear.
We took many steps to help ease some of his anxiety. We met his teacher and principal and toured the school a few weeks before his first day. In the months leading up to the start of school we made several trips to the playground so that he could relax and play and become more familiar with what was an unfamiliar place. These steps certainly helped reduce some anxiety and my son started developing a positive connection with his new school. But what I found the most impactful were the discoveries that naturally evolved through the conversations we had, guided by practices and attitudes of mindfulness:
Throughout the weeks leading up to his first day I often encouraged my son to “check in” and just notice with curiosity what he was feeling. I would periodically ask “what is your body telling you?” or “what feelings do you notice in your body?” Because anxiety often triggers a significant physiological response, he learned to notice his heart pounding a little faster when he was thinking about school. Butterflies fluttering around in his stomach was a big one. I noticed him cracking his knuckles and biting his nails a bit more; all sure signs that he was thinking and feeling something and that his sympathetic nervous system had been activated.
When we invite children to pay attention to the felt sense of an emotion, it helps build body awareness. Children discover and learn to trust their body as a communicator, like a messenger saying “hey, something’s up.” When we pause and check in with our bodies we’re invited to step into the present moment and out of autopilot, out of reactivity and impulsivity, out of an over-active mind; that pause creates a little space for us. “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” –Viktor E. Frankl. We can support our children in that space, teaching them to respond with their breath, to calm, to self-regulate. From a calmer state we have more clarity and greater possibility for handling whatever is happening in the present moment. We can learn to accept whatever it is that we’re feeling in the moment. Acceptance isn’t passive, it’s a willingness to see things as they are, and when we have a clearer picture of what is actually happening, we’re more likely to know how to take care of our needs.
Becoming more aware of our thoughts is equally important. A nine-year-old may not fully understand that a thought is separate from themselves; they often believe their thoughts to be truth. Parents can help build awareness of how powerful our thoughts can be just by bringing more awareness to them. For example, as we got closer to the start date I noticed my son’s thoughts were quite catastrophic in nature. “This is going to be a horrible year, I’m not going to make any friends” he told me one afternoon. I used this opportunity to validate what he was feeling and to point out that these were just thoughts not facts. I asked him to consider how his thoughts might be influenced by the fear and worry he was feeling. I was also able to shape his thoughts a bit, widening his lens a little more so that he could look at the situation from a different view. My replies often sounded like, “It may be a difficult start but I think you have what it takes to get through this.” or “This is hard, but give it a few days, I bet you’ll meet a few kids with similar interests.” Some children require more support and practice with cognitive flexibility. There isn’t a quick fix but with guidance, collaboration and repetition they can learn to become more aware of their thoughts and how their thoughts can affect the way they feel and behave.
Occasionally I would check in and offer these simple words, “It’s tough moving to a new town and going to a new school, isn’t it?” This prompted conversation that invited my son to explore his experience with understanding versus criticism. We can support our children in being mindful of when they’re having a hard time, then, give them permission to treat themselves as they would a friend. “What would you tell a friend who was going through a similar experience?” When we approach challenging times with this mindset we’re laying the foundation for a life that includes self-compassion; how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?
Often when we’re going through a challenging time our thoughts have us believing that we are alone in our experience which can be very isolating. So when the principal informed us that there were three new boys starting fourth grade in the Fall, I used this as an opportunity to explore another component of self-compassion, common humanity. “So, how do you think the other two new boys are feeling right about now?” My son quickly replied, “I imagine they’re really nervous.” Acknowledging that other people experience similar challenges reminds us of our interconnectedness with others. Accepting that everyone struggles from time to time helps us feel not so alone. Sometimes this knowing lightens the weight of what we’re experiencing—just a bit.
We’re grateful to have the support of a wide circle of family and friends. The days leading up to the first day of school we received messages from many…”Thinking of you buddy” “Good luck tomorrow” “Have a good first day” “You’ve got this” I shared these words of encouragement with my son and reminded him of this circle of love and support from people near and far. When you’re feeling sad or alone, it’s comforting to remember that you’re in the heart and mind of others.
Last night I kissed my son goodnight and I encouraged him to trust himself, to trust that he had within himself what it would take to make it through the first day of fourth grade. When we encourage children to take solace in themselves we remind that their inner strength is always a place where they can find refuge.
This morning was what it was. My son was nervous, at times looked a little pale. I saw evidence that he’s little sympathetic nervous system was alive and well. We walked to school, talked about dinosaurs and I offered a few encouraging words. As I noticed butterflies in my own stomach and my heart racing a bit faster, I reminded myself that this is part of his journey. Life includes learning how to navigate through challenging times. If as parent we are there to “fix” it all for them, well then, what are we really teaching our kids. I trust that he’ll get through it and will be stronger for it. As we heard the bell ring and saw students running towards the door we said our goodbyes and I watched him hesitantly run off for his first day of fourth grade. I exhaled, began my walk home and shed a couple tears…
Jen Rapanos, LMSW, RCYT is a child and adolescent psychotherapist working in private practice. She is the owner of Well-Bean, LLC which is committed to providing services & programs that foster the emotional & mental well-being of youth. Well-Bean offers child & adolescent psychotherapy, yoga & mindfulness classes, wellness workshops and education & training for parents and educators.
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