When your child is anxious, sad or nervous about school, it can lead to great distress at home for the whole family. As a parent coach, I have helped families deal with these issues time and again and these are my essential steps for how to support your child if they are having difficulty at school.
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Is your child worried about making friends, anxious about changing class, struggling with separation anxiety, or facing into exams? Perhaps there is an issue of bullying, an unwillingness to take part in activities, or upset because they have nobody to play with. There are many ways your child could be having difficulty at school and, as a parent coach, I regularly hear about these concerns.
Understandably, whatever the issue, it can cause emotional distress for the child, as well as anxiety for parents.
If you want to know how to support a child having difficulty at school, the first step is to build T-R-U-S-T.
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T = Teamwork
A “team” mindset is your first key to supporting your child, to create a viable way forward.
“We’re in this together. We can find solutions together.”
When we feel anxious as parents, it’s easy to slip into an “I – you” mindset, that gives the message, “I am the expert and you need fixing.”
A parent can jump in with pre-made solutions:
“You should…“, “Why don’t you…?” or “Here’s what you need to do…”
The parent’s advice is well intended but there are two main issues here:
- You are not your child. It’s not you in that situation – and you are a different personality with different life experience. What might work for you won’t necessarily work for your child.
- When you try to rescue your child with your solutions you set them up as a victim, which means you aren’t helping your child to build the inner resources and the resilience to deal with other similar issues in the future.
So keep teamwork uppermost in your thinking.
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R = Respect the Uniqueness of Your Child
Our children need to be treated with respect – their emotions, their experiences and their opinions matter as much as ours.
When we jump in with our solutions or demean their experiences with comments like, “That’s life, get over it,” we are not respecting that our children are awesome individuals on their own unique life journey who need our emotional support – particularly when life is challenging.
We cannot travel their life path for them.
We can offer listening and understanding.
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U = Understand
Understand that each person is a rich complexity of emotions, thoughts, and physiology including neuro-chemical reactions.
We parent in one of the most exciting times ever because neuroscience is unfolding new awarenesses about the complexity of ourselves as amazing organisms who are impacted biologically as well as psychologically, not only by our environment but also by the interactions with others. No situation is ever simple. No challenging interaction is easy.
We can’t change the other person, but we can reflect on our part to create a safe listening space where we collaborate with our children to co-create solutions.
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S = Ensure Psychological Safety
A key insight from neuroscience is that the amygdala, the ‘fight or flight’ part of the brain, is continuously, in every relationship, assessing, “Am I safe?”
It’s assessing not just physical safety but emotional safety.
When the amygdala senses judgement, criticism, coercion, control, “win at all costs” or “I’m right – you’re wrong”, it triggers an alert that causes the thinking and reasoning frontal regions of the brain to temporarily go off-line.
When you feel like saying to your child, “Why don’t you listen to me!” or “Why can’t you see sense!” they probably can’t. Your child has gone into survival mode.
It’s our job as parents to create the psychological safety that will calm the amygdala so that the child’s thinking, reasoning skills can come back online. This happens when the child senses our unconditional love, our willingness to hear and validate their experience, and our willingness to find collaborative ways to co-create solutions.
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T = Create Trust
The amygdala is continuously assessing: “Can I trust this person?”
Trust is not a given. In every situation we need to create trust, especially when anxiety is running high.
When the amygdala senses safety, then the nature of the space between parent and child and the nature of the space within changes.
Martin Buber describes this as the “I – thou” relationship – honouring the unique personhood of the other. This matters as much with young children as with older children and adults, as I describe in my book, Baby and Toddler On Board: Mindful Parenting When a New Baby Joins the Family.
When parents are triggered by their own anxiety, it’s easy to forget the importance of trust that respects the individuality of the child and empowers the child to work with us to create a collaborative way forward, rather than pushing for our own solutions, as well-intentioned as we may be.
Our children need us to create Teamwork, Respect, Understanding and psychological Safety so that we can lay a foundation of Trust, where a meaningful way forward can be discovered.
If we, as parents, try to take over to resolve issues when our children are having difficulty at school, or in other areas of their lives, it’s like trying to build a house without first laying a foundation. Even slight tremors can bring the whole fabric tumbling down.
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The Power of Parent Coaching
As a parent coach, I support parents to find a helpful path through the challenges their children face.
So here’s a quick glimpse of what this looks like in practice:
Often I’ll ask a parent to tell me of one particular parent-child interaction concerning this difficulty at school.
I’ll encourage the parent to give me the exact wording they used in response to the child.
Then I ask the parent to pause and to imagine themselves in the child’s shoes.
“What might your child be noticing about you?”
Very often the parent immediately becomes aware not only of unhelpful words they used, but also their body language and tone of voice.
Their child’s reactivity begins to make sense.
I invite the parent to imagine this as a film and to replay this scene, recreating it in their imagination in a way that builds Teamwork, Respect, Understanding, psychological Safety and Trust. I invite them to imagine how their child might respond differently, and to imagine how that might feel for the child and for themselves.
When they describe the recreated scene to me I ask them to identify the ways in which they perceive they are responding in a more helpful way.
And when I ask them what’s stopping them from creating this type of interaction, they often notice it is their own anxiety!
I become a key part of the parent’s team, helping them to figure out what’s needed to be the parent they’d love to be.
I love Maya Angelou’s famous quote:
“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
If we want our children to remember that we made them feel strong, confident, able to rise to the challenges of life it starts with creating Teamwork, Respect, Understanding, psychological Safety and Trust.
As family dynamics become happier and healthier, I often ask the parents to describe the space between them and their child in terms of a river.
Invariably the relationship where TRUST had been low is described in terms of a river that is muddy, polluted, turbulent, and where the banks are far apart.
As TRUST is established they describe their relationship as a river that is calm, clean, sparkling water, and easy to cross.
So it’s over to you.
If you are going through an anxious time, such as how to support a child having difficulty at school, consider the “river” of your relationship and how this might be impacted by the level of TRUST between you.
How would you like your river to be?
What small do-able step can you take today to create greater Teamwork, Respect, Understanding, psychological Safety and Trust, between you and your child?
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How do you deal with things when your child has difficulty at school? Leave a comment below and let us know – we’d love to hear from you!