The start of a new term in September is always an important occasion for families: some children will be excited and enthusiastic about returning to school, others less so.
It is important for adults to remind themselves of the immaturity of children’s emotional systems. Even the most confident child can be thrown by transitions: starting a new school, a change of class or simply a move from summer holiday mode back into the school routine.
Children’s brains develop slowly from birth through to adulthood, with the average individual’s brain reaching full maturity at twenty-five years of age. One of the last areas to mature is that of ‘executive function’. Executive functioning is the control system of the brain that co-ordinates rational thought and emotional regulation. During childhood and adolescence these two areas develop at different rates. This imbalance explains why children can appear impulsive and thoughtless, but are equally capable of seeing such behaviours as undesirable when they take time to think rationally.
All children and young people feel emotions keenly: injustice, love, anger, fear, envy, happiness, anxiety and pleasure. Periods of change, such as a new school year, inevitably give rise to mixed emotions. Children may need adult help to rationalise their feelings and get them into perspective.
How to help: –
- Always remember that children’s levels of development vary. One twelve-year-old may have the emotional maturity of a five-year-old, while another has that of a sixteen-year-old.
- Supporting children’s development is an on-going process that may seem like banging your head repeatedly against the same brick wall. The adult must be patient and keep reinforcing the same messages.
- Parents need to be able to self-regulate themselves. If a child is anxious, angry or distressed, they will need the adult to remain calm and supportive.
- Remember that behaviour is a form of communication and treat it as such. Talk to children about emotions existing as thoughts and feelings, rather than facts. We feel angry, frightened or upset, rather than we are angry, frightened or upset.
- Children will need acceptable outlets for emotions out of school: sport to burn off excess energy, martial arts for self-control, art and craft for self-expression, combined with plenty of opportunities for relaxation and the pursuit of personal interests and hobbies.
- It is important that children realise that anxiety and apprehension are a normal part of everyday life. Everyone worries and is anxious sometimes: a degree of stress is positive and helps to galvanise us into action.
- Parents should make it clear to their children that there is a generous and broad definition of success; and that they value a range of attributes: courage, sensitivity, humour, perceptiveness, kindness, creativity, effort, thoughtfulness and resilience, rather than narrow and restricted definitions of achievement.
- If a child is opening up about a problem at school, seize the moment and listen to what they have to say: then, if necessary, act on their behalf. Children need their parents when they need them, not when the adult has an inclination to give the child some quality time.
- Adults should allow the children to pursue their own interests in school, rather than directing them towards what the adult would like them to take up: to be artistic rather than musical, an actor rather than a physicist, a junior librarian rather than a rugby player.
- There is a delicate balance to be struck between gradually allowing children degrees of independence by extending their comfort zones, and pushing them out of the nest before they are ready.
- Children need parents who can teach them empathy. All children are self-centred, and parents will need to alert them to the feelings of their peers, to discuss why other children, (and teachers), might behave in the way they do, and to encourage the child to consider situations from the point of view of others.
- Play is the perfect antidote to stress for all children and teenagers. Ensure the children have generous amounts of free time after school and at weekends, without constant adult intervention or direction.