It’s that time of year again—back to school—and one thing that’s on the mind of parents recently is something that wasn’t necessarily on the minds of our parents. It’s their children’s mental health. And they may not know where to turn. So here are 10 tips to help ease the back-to-school transition and manage the stress in your home by boosting your child’s emotional IQ.
(1) ALLOW Independence
When we do things for children that they are capable of doing, we teach them that we believe them to be incapable. Children feel better about themselves when they accomplish things. Simply put, competence builds confidence. Try letting your child ask for help when needed, and offer assistance based on the child’s skills. You are then able to accomplish it together, as opposed to doing it for them. It is also important to encourage your child’s effort, instead of praising them for being “smart” or “good.” Using statements such as “you’re working hard on that,” or “you did that on your own” helps build a child’s confidence and teaches perseverance.
(2) CREATE a Calming Kit
Creating a Calming Kit is a great way to bond with your child while introducing the skill of self-regulation. Decorate, create or purchase a box or bag and fill it with items that are soothing and comforting yourchild. Items that may relieve stress include a snow globe, a stress ball, play-doh, or a puzzle. A Rubik’s cube or coloring materials help focus attention. Bubbles, pinwheels or feathers encourage deep breathing, and things such as calming music, a soft pillow or blanket and pictures of family generate a general sense of well-being. The possibilities are endless! But remember to have your child practice using the Calming Kit when they are not upset, so they will be able to access its benefits when distressed.
When dealing with challenging behavior, connection is vital. The level of connection children feel with their parents is directly related to the amount of cooperation they provide. Try to connect with your child whenever possible by using eye contact and/or a soft touch. Get into the habit of establishing eye contact during everyday interactions. This is the process of making deposits in your child’s emotional bank account. There will be times when you cannot make eye contact with your child, but that’s ok because you will have been making deposits all along. I also encourage parents to pause what they are doing, acknowledge when their child needs their attention and address whether or not they are able to provide it at that moment by saying something like, “I see you need my attention right now. I am making dinner for us, so I will be able to give you my attention in 20 minutes.”
(4) ENCOURAGE Movement
When children are having a difficult time, it often helps to get them moving, especially upside down. Choose three physical things with your child that you can encourage he or she to do when facing challenging behavior or difficult emotions. Examples include jumping jacks, shaking out the sillies, crawling like a crab, hanging upside down, or doing some simple yoga poses like downward dog.
(5) KEEP Routines Consistent
Keeping routines as consistent as possible helps reduce children’s anxiety. When children know what to expect and who to expect it from, they don’t need to use space in their brains to figure it out. Keeping a family calendar or weekly agenda helps relieve feelings of anxiety that may arise around regular household activities. Children frequently have difficulty with transitions, as do many adults. Try put yourself in their shoes and remember that it isn’t pleasant when someone asks you to stop doing something you enjoy immediately so you can go grocery shopping. Providing consistent time warnings is helpful, particularly when you need your child to stop doing something they enjoy. Let your child know what will be happening in 10 minutes, 5 minutes, and 1 minute, for example.
(6) LIMIT Screen Time
Children are more sensitive to electronics than adults and they are spending significant amounts of time in front of screens during the school day, so it is wise to limit screen time at home. Excessive screen time can have negative effects on a child’s physical and mental development, increasing their chances for anxiety, depression and social isolation. Think before you allow a TV, computer or video game equipment in a child’s bedroom, and instead use a family computer with common passwords. Set limits as early as possible and do not use screen time as a reward. Lastly, be sure to designate screen-free times together and media-free locations such as the dinner table and bedrooms.
I could go on and on about the importance of play, but I will simply say that it is vital for healthy development. Luckily, it’s also fun! Carve out 20 to 30 minutes per day to commit to one-on-one play time with your child. During this time, let them be in charge. Set limits when needed, but refrain from using this time to teach or correct. Instead, rest assured that this time is helping them understand the world around them, develop communication skills, experiment with new ideas, and prime their brain for higher-level learning.
(8) PROVIDE Choices
Parents can help prevent stress by giving children a sense of autonomy and control through choice. This can be as simple as encouraging your child to choose his or her outfit or which bowl he or she will use for breakfast. Allowing a child to feel in control hard-wires the brain to better handle stressful situations later in life and when children feel they lack control, they try to take it. Providing two acceptable choices helps: “It’s time to brush your teeth and put on your pajamas. Which would you like to do first?”or “It’s time for breakfast. Do you choose the red or the blue bowl?” Remember to also give your child age-appropriate household chores, which helps build confidence as well as a stronger connection to the family.
(9) SCHEDULE Downtime & Limit Extracurricular Activities
Downtime is becoming rare, so it might help to schedule it on your calendar. Downtime can mean doing something relaxing such as coloring or listening to music, but it can also be time for plain old daydreaming, meditation, or a simple nap. The bodies and minds of children need downtime to rest and recuperate from growth and development. This time opens up the creative areas in our brains and allows us to see things from a new perspective, improving problem solving and conflict resolution skills. I also encourage limiting extracurricular activities. We all acknowledge that involvement in athletics and other activities can be beneficial, but for our already stressed-out kids, an overloaded schedule can be overwhelming. Instead choose one or two activities that your child really loves and stick with those.
(10) VALIDATE Feelings
When children are feeling stressed, under pressure or even just tired, validating their feelings is the first and most important step in avoiding or moving past a meltdown. Respond to your child by validating their feelings so they feel heard and understood. In the process, you’ll be helping them recognize and identify their feelings, the first step in overall emotional regulation. Next time your child is upset, try saying, “you look sad.” “you seem frustrated,” or “that makes you embarrassed” before attempting to redirect them.