Steve Schlozman, MD, and Gene Beresin, MD, of the MassGeneral Hospital for Children Psychiatry Department offer advice to parents on helping their teens and young children transition back to school.
Back to School Psychology 101: Tips for Parents
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Billy needs a new backpack, and they only have the ones with The Hulk. Billy hates the Hulk. He has never liked green, and he whines up a storm at Target... Billy is 9 years old.
Sally knows that this summer everyone was supposed to read Ender’s Game for English class, but she just doesn’t like science fiction. She’s grumpy now, because it is her last week of summer vacation, and she has to spend it with her nose in a book that she hasn’t even picked up from the library yet. Sally is 13 years old.
Aaron has had it. He is NOT going to take AP World History. He’s been waiting for four years to take the advanced art class that his high school offers, and now his parents are telling him that he’ll never get a job as an artist but that he might get a job if he gets into a good college after taking AP World History. “You coulda told me that before you let me go to art camp this summer,” he grumbles. Aaron is 17 years old.
So, no surprises… going back to school is no picnic. Often kids have very mixed emotions. It’s exciting to see friends again and to face new challenges, but it can be hard for that excitement to compete with the slower and more mellow pace of summer. In fact, transitions can be pretty tough for lots of kids, but remember that the way in which these transitions are tough is very much a function of how old the kids happen to be. In other words, kids respond to the stressors of going back to school in developmentally distinct ways. And often parents themselves have their own agendas and set of problems with the transition.
In the case of Aaron’s parents, so what if he doesn’t take AP History? Whose agenda is right? And what is best for the kid in the short and long run? Parents really need to think about knowing who their kid is and to pick their battles. It would be a different story if Aaron said, “Hey, I am not going back to high school. I think I should just get my GED and go to a vocational school in art.” Is that realistic for his future and desire to become an artist?
Let’s think about Billy. He’s not really upset over the backpack. Probably your life will be easier if you can find something that doesn’t the Hulk on it, but Billy usually doesn’t throw a fit in Target when they don’t have the product he wants.
But Billy is 9, and at 9 what you have compared to what your friends have matters. So help Billy to understand what his friends are getting for school supplies. You might even do the back-to-school shopping with that friend. Billy’s a lot more likely to hold it together if he remembers that he’s not alone in this. In fact, concern about being alone and left out is about as developmentally relevant as it gets for a 9-year-old, so any way you can remind him that he’s not on his own will help.
The moral here: try to imagine what a 9-year-old is thinking and feeling about his backpack. YOU might think the Hulk is pretty cool, but if Billy thinks it is way out of line with what his friends think, he may need to know what they actually like or don’t like. Frankly, he may not really care what you like! So giving him the opportunity to join with peers, especially at his age, both informs him and informs you about what would be a good solution.
Sally is facing her first summer reading task, and therefore she is facing the first summer reading task that she hasn’t done (yet). Part of getting older is wanting to spend more time alone with your friends and wanting to specifically ignore just about anything your parents say, since everything that parents say is heard as somewhere between nagging and annoying. And don’t they understand that going back to school is full of stress!!??
Remember that at 13, the stress – maybe even more for girls than for boys – is as much about appearance as it is about increased school work. Give Sally some space. If you ever failed to do your summer reading until the last minute (and I bet you did at least once), tell Sally about it. She might act like she doesn’t hear you, but she’ll listen. Kids usually look up to their parents even as they act like their parents are more annoying than greenhead flies… she’ll take solace in knowing that you were in fact not as perfect as she thinks you claim you were every time you nag her.
As for Enders Game (a darn good book, by the way), see if she can listen to a recorded version. See if her friends will get together for an hour of reading at Starbucks or some similar venue. See if she’ll let you draw up a schedule. When you’re thirteen, the smallest tasks can seem overwhelming. Helping to organize these tasks, even if she pretends not to listen, can make a big difference. And it may not be the book at all. It may be that Sally has trouble reading; and if that is true, it may not just be that she wants to spend time with friends, but that reading is a hardship. What is her past history in reading and writing? Does she have problems in these areas?
Finally, we have Aaron, the angst-ridden budding artist whose folks want him to take AP World History. Developmentally, Aaron is defining himself. He is artistic, and he finds meaning and self-worth in his art. These are hard qualities to come by in the midst of late adolescence, so when these qualities settle in, don’t rock that boat. In more general terms, let Aaron chase his dreams, within reason. That might sound flighty and loosey-goosey, but it's also the best way to help Aaron feel good about who he is. And if Aaron feels good, Aaron will do good. How do you define yourself? What makes you feel good? If Aaron’s wishes are not self-destructive or defeating – and they enhance his identity – then let him go for it.
For all kids, here are some general tips or rules of thumb:
These are just some general tips, and every kid is different. One size does not fit all for kids, as they negotiate the turbulent path back into the classroom. Remember that you know your children; remember to separate your agenda from theirs; and remember what you’d expect of someone else the same age.
At the end of the day, there are always good movies to wrap up the year. A family night out to dinner and a show is great way to ring in the excitement of fall. Good luck!
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