One Helping of Back-to-School Anxiety with a Side of Meltdown to go

Posted July 28, 2008 by

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Back in January, my friend Julie asked me, “Has your kindergarten stomach ache started yet?” When I gave her a puzzled look, she said, “I’ve already started to freak out about Eli starting kindergarten in the fall.” I knew what she meant-ever since my son turned 5, I’d been dreading his graduation into the big boy world of backpacks, Power Rangers, and visits from the tooth fairy. I know it sounds terrible-I should be celebrating every milestone, right? But the truth is, while I love seeing my son grow, a part of me can’t help but mourn a little for the baby he was.

Fast forward to a parents-only kindergarten orientation in early June. The teachers at my son’s new school did a little presentation and slide show of kindergarten activities, showing us what would happen from the time our children got on the bus until the time they came home. I looked around the room at all the anxious faces (one woman was sniffling into a tissue) and realized that this little assembly had been put together not so that we parents could tell our kids about kindergarten, but to reduce our collective anxiety about our children going to school for the first time. To be honest, my son has been excited about kindergarten and the prospect of riding the school bus since he was 4 years old. I almost laughed when I realized that it was the parents who needed the reassurance from the teachers, not just the kids.

And then summer hit, and along with the hot weather came my son’s full-blown regression back to toddlerhood. Much to my chagrin (and occasional embarrassment) he’s gone back in time emotionally to the toddler stage: we’ve experienced the Full Monty of babytalking, thumbsucking, and complete “terrible two” style meltdowns that shake the neighborhood. And the next minute, he’s climbing a tree like a monkey, asking me where black holes come from, and striking up a conversation about soccer with a neighbor at a BBQ. I was completely stumped until my friend Joan hit the nail on the head. “Kindergarten. It’s classic. A lot of kids go backwards a little before big changes in their lives, and especially before they go to kindergarten.” I knew she was right-that’s exactly what’s been happening. I talked to one of his pre-school teachers, a classroom veteran of 25 years. She suggested I take him to school for a little tour before kindergarten started. “You can also play the ‘What if’ game,” she said. “Let him start. Keep it light at first. Then you can slip in something like, ‘What if you get to kindergarten and everyone’s new,’ and then talk about it together.”

Armed with this tried-and-true advice, I pounced as my son was eating a Popsicle after dinner one night last week. “Want to play the ‘What if?’ game?”  He nodded, his lips stained Joker-red by the Popsicle.

“You start, Mommy.”

“OK, what if you get to kindergarten, and the teacher is wearing a rabbit on her head?” He laughed, and then he thought for awhile. I waited with bated breath, sure that I’d get some insight into his fears about the unknown territory of the big-kid world. He was pensive for a moment, then looked me right in the eye.

“OK. What if…you took me to Target right now and bought me a toy?” I sat there staring at him, a little disappointed that he hadn’t revealed any deep dark fears. When I didn’t reply, he continued by throwing in, “…And what if you bought something for yourself, too?”

Then I laughed. The truth is, he’s dealing with kindergarten his own way, and it’s probably working for him. He’s started asking me more questions, too, like, “Do they have crayons at kindergarten? Will there be other boys?” And the current oft-whispered pre-school rumor, “Do they really send you home if you have to go potty?”

I’ll let you know how the first week of school goes, but until then,  I’ve decided to chill out a little…(but I am signing up for that kindergarten tour!)

Have you ever noticed your child regressing when they’re anxious, and do you have any good ideas on how to handle it? How are you dealing with back-to-school transitions or concerns? Are there any other times in your child’s life when you noticed that they’ve been nervous about school? Tell us what you do to calm their fears…and your own!

About

Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.

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