From the beginning of seventh grade until halfway into my first year of high school, I dreaded going to school. Some days, I’d get the same physical symptoms as if I were being chased by a lion: racing heart, surging adrenaline, dry mouth, upset stomach. I didn’t feel this way because of the schoolwork; it was because I was so afraid of what (or who) was waiting for me in the lunchroom or on the schoolyard.

Most kids fear and suffer more from peer relationships than they do from academic pressures, and I was no different.

If you’re a parent helping an insecure or fearful child prepare to go back to school this semester — or any day of the year —  here are some things you can say and do that might help.

  1. “Yup, I get it. School can suck.” Empathize with their emotions. Feelings are okay, it’s what we DO with feelings that is either okay or not okay. Tell them how awful school was for you, if it was. Agree that it can be scary, sad, lonely or frustrating. He or she will feel that you’re on their side and that there isn’t something wrong with them for feeling this way.
  2. “I believe you can do this, because…” You have to really believe in your child’s ability to handle things for this sentence to work. What have you seen them do before that is scary or hard? What have they overcome before? Remind them of those times, and what strengths or resources they drew upon to cope? In my case, my mom could have said, “I believe you can do this because we’ve moved six times already, and you always made good friends because you are kind, open and curious.” It would have helped.
  3. “This is a chance for you to practice being …..” Depending on the situation, encourage your child to build one of the strengths they’re either endowed with or not. (There’s a great list of strengths in my free booklet, “24 Ways to See the Best in Every Child.”) Two key strengths to build in difficult situations are optimism — looking for the good — and bravery — doing things even though they’re hard. Follow this up by asking what he or she did that day that drew on one of their strengths.
  4. “Making friends requires some skills that anyone can learn, and I’m sure you can too.” Give them some step-by-step advice. Social skills include making eye contact, smiling, making chit-chat (“Did you finish the homework?” “I like your shoes.”), listening with interest when someone else is talking, and being able to share a couple of things about yourself that are interesting but not too personal, at least for now. If things go well, and a friendship starts to blossom, the more intimate stuff can come later.
  5. “Sometimes these things take time.” Teach them to be okay with discomfort by being okay with their discomfort. This is hard, I know. It’s so natural for us to want to ease our children’s suffering, but the truth is sometimes difficult situations last a while. Being able to cope / stay optimistic through hard times is a skill they’ll need throughout their lives. In the meantime, practice strengths as in Step 3 above or try Step 6.
  6. “You have the power to make good things happen.” Help them focus outside themselves by encouraging them to do one kind thing for someone every day, and to notice the good that comes their way too. As tiny a gesture as holding the door for someone counts, and can make a difference.

Good luck. I’ve been through this many times with my own kids and my heart goes out to you.

What ideas can you add? Have you tried something that might help other parents? Share it below!