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Care deeply and play it cool

Keep calm. Keep an eye out. Keep communicating. (And keep some frozen dinners ready.)

Those are the back-to-school recommendations of Caitlin O’Dell and Jon Joebgen, mental health professionals with Children’s Center, a Vancouver clinic for uninsured and underinsured kids and their families. (The frozen dinner idea — a fallback when you’re totally stressed — is thanks to the National Association of School Psychologists and its excellent “Back to School Transitions” handout.)

As our Family Room blog recently noted, the summer oasis of carefreedom for kids is a time of concentrated responsibility for working parents who’ve still got to think about activities and supervision. And then it flips: all of a sudden the kids have a daily business commitment. Thank goodness, many parents sigh with relief, the pressure’s off.

Which it is and it isn’t, of course, because back-to-school season can be back-to-stress season for kids. Wise parents will be proactive in helping their children get organized in advance and stay on track in the thick of things — all while playing it a little bit cool, O’Dell said.

Kids take cues from their parents, she said, and if news that your child is nervous, scared or even running into real problems tips you into crisis mode, that may well scare the child even more. Overreact and you become part of the problem, not the solution, and your child may either overreact too, or just withdraw from you. Not a pattern you want to set.

So, ‘rents, just chill. Don’t freak out. Don’t take over. Be a good listener, and reassure your child: “We are going to handle this together.” Help your child solve the problem.

Defeat the dog
What’s more frustrating than completing homework or even accomplishing some big project but never getting credit for it — because of self-defeating trivia like forgetting when it was due, leaving it behind or just plain losing it?

Steer your kids around that legendary homework-eating dog by helping them get organized. O’Dell and Joebgen agreed that one smart step many schools take these days is distributing planning notebooks to students and even designating particular class periods for putting those planners to work — tracking assignments and projects, commitments and possible conflicts.

It’s an excellent way to build the time-management skills children will use every day of their adult lives, and parents should participate at home too. Be familiar with your kid’s planner and what’s in it. At least for younger students, delineate a quiet homework zone — the kitchen table? — where focus is easy and losing stuff is hard.

You already know this, but it bears endless repetition: turn off the TV, the Internet, the electronic everything, when it’s homework time. Really. No, really.

Take the rap
Speaking of which, Joebgen said, “basic refusal skills” are important for children starting to experience serious peer pressure. Gentle but firm refusal of substances, activities, outings — whatever’s “outside one’s values and one’s family’s values,” he said. (The trick being that adolescents in particular are busy testing and determining what those values really are.)

Saying “no” is a great skill to rehearse and role play, O’Dell said. Give your kid permission to blame you: “My mom is always smelling my breath.” “I’d better not, my dad would kill me.”

Know your kid
Regular and adequate sleep, food and exercise are essential. Try to re-establish an earlier routine well in advance of the start of school. If your child is jittery about a brand new school — maybe making the leap from elementary to middle — go visit the place and just hang around. Enjoy the playground. If doors are open, try peeking inside, saying hello, taking a quick tour. The familiar is never as scary as the strange.

Keep calm and positive, but don’t shrug off what your gut tells you as the term progresses. “You know your kid better than any professional,” said O’Dell. You know how your kid has reacted to stress and nerves in the past. Does it seem different, more intense, this time around?

“Extreme behaviors. Not being able to do normal stuff or move forward at all,” said Joebgen. “More problems at home, more irritability and withdrawal. Anxieties that seem overwhelming. Going to great lengths to not go to school. None of the usual stuff is helping. Something’s going on.”

Your kid may deny it. Generalized anxiety with no specific trigger may be hard to understand, and peer pressure and bullying can be “really difficult for kids to talk about,” Joebgen said.
Here’s your script, O’Dell said: “I know you and I think there’s something wrong. I love you and I’m concerned. I’m going to keep my eye on this.”

Again, help your kid find solutions if possible: Walk away. Find a new friend. Find a new route. But if the problem seems bigger or more out-of-control than that, get more help. “Make sure your child knows you are working with the school, working with the professionals there, to see what’s being done,” said Joebgen. “You are stronger than the bullies.”

Autumn uptick
Give it some time, but if things stay extreme, don’t hesitate to reach out to teachers, counselors, other helping professionals. O’Dell said October — after the first few weeks of school and the first round of parent-teacher conferences — is when Children’s Center always sees a rise in calls for help.

But don’t forget, she said: “Some kids get really excited about school. Some kids really look forward to it.”

“For kids who had trouble last year,” Joebgen said, “a new school year really can be a fresh start.”