My older son started kindergarten this year, and we were expecting him to love it once he got past initial worries. He was anxious to begin with – he was worried he wouldn’t know anyone, worried he would be late to school , worried his teacher might not be as nice as his preschool teacher had been. Once school started and he realized he did know kids in his class, that it’s ok to be late once in a while, and that his teacher is just as nice as the preschool teacher, I figured it would be smooth sailing.
As it turns out, not every child, even the well-adjusted ones, loves kindergarten. Even kids who love to learn and love the idea of school can have a setback with a change as big as starting public school. And don’t get me wrong, he likes kindergarten; it is just very, very stressful for him.
N has always had anxiety about new things, but until kindergarten started in such a difficult way for him, I didn’t realize just how much pressure he puts on himself. When he misses an instruction during a game of tag in gym class, he feels embarrassed and worried even if the gym teacher doesn’t notice. He has cried several afternoons after school because he said it’s “too much for him” to worry about doing everything perfectly during school hours.
We’ve never had a house where anyone feels outside pressure to be perfect, and I try to reward effort or kindness over perfection and being the best at things. But some children are just born anxious, and I think my N is one of them. So I started looking into things I could do to help him survive a little more easily.
Statistically, 10-20% of school-aged children experience anxiety. It is the most common mental health condition in children and adults, and luckily it is one of the easiest to deal with before it becomes debilitating. It is nice to know that my child isn’t alone, and that there is expert advice out there to help me help him.
The Child Mind Institute has some excellent suggestions for helping children deal with anxiety. Among their list of suggestions is this:
“The message you want to send is, ‘I know you’re scared, and that’s okay, and I’m here, and I’m going to help you get through this’…You can’t promise a child that her fears are unrealistic—that she won’t fail a test, that she’ll have fun ice skating, or that another child won’t laugh at her during show & tell. But you can express confidence that she’s going to be okay, she will be able to manage it, and that, as she faces her fears, the anxiety level will drop over time. This gives her confidence that your expectations are realistic, and that you’re not going to ask her to do something she can’t handle.”
Giving children skills to manage their anxiety will help them be successful in life without being afraid of failing. Because they will fail, and we have to let them. But we can work with them to be okay with not being the best at everything, not being perfect, and not being afraid to be who they are. One thing I have learned while helping my son navigate the first month of kindergarten is that sometimes we don’t even know these worries are in our children. If we don’t ask or don’t pay close attention to what is going on with them, we may miss it altogether. Had my son not broken down over a Lego fight with his brother that would never have fazed him otherwise, I would not have thought to ask him what was really wrong, and I would never have known he was constantly worrying about school.
Now that the communication is open and I’m making a big effort to curb some of this anxiety, we can talk about it, run through scenarios that might come up, and then debrief after each long day at school. If my son can manage to get through some of the smaller hiccups like forgetting an instruction, he can move onto dealing with life’s bigger unknowns and hopefully learn to deal with his internal pressure in positive, productive ways.
*A version of this post first ran on Greeley Moms.