Back to School Tips for Parents: Transitions and The Power of Being Present

With summer coming to an end and school around the corner, one of the most pressing topics parents have expressed concerns about is how to best support their children and youth in transitioning back to a new academic year, particularly given the previous chaotic academic year.

One of the most powerful ways to build resilience in children is through the opportunity to form safe and meaningful relationships with at least one adult in their life. Based on Drs. Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson’s recent book The Power of Showing Up, based on many years of brain and attachment research, there are four S’s that contribute to positive mental health: Safe, Seen, Soothed, Secure. These four S’s are important foundation to keep in mind for supporting children’s ability to transition back to school.

Feeling safe is the foundation of a strong attachment and what allows children to feel connected and protected. A parent creates a sense of safety by consistently sending the message to their child that they are there for the child and will protect them. In other words, the parent ensures that the child is protected from harm and the parent avoids becoming the source of fear and threat.

A child who feels safe knows that while they may experience hardships (like returning to school), they will be ok because they have people who care about them. This sense of safety is powerful in so many ways. Not only does this create a mindset for becoming more resilient to challenges, but this sense of safety also creates a more receptive and engaged learning experience that supports optimal development.

Parents can practice building in this feeling of safety in their children by being very clear about what their children can expect when they return to school. This discussion may include the idea of wearing masks, schedule of when they would wake up, eat breakfast, leave for school, return home, etc. Ensure to discuss what routines will change and what will remain the same. A family calendar may be useful in outlining all the upcoming things and what to expect.

The idea here is not to rescue children from experiencing the discomfort of transitioning back to the school environment, but, rather, to support them while they struggle and learn how to cope. Not unlike when we let go during our child’s first steps or when they are learning to bicycle; allow children to experience these challenges while being close by to support them.

Feeling seen is more than just being present physically, it is about pausing to understand what may be happening for our child internally and responding to this. For example, if a child seems to be particularly on edge, pausing and asking ourselves “What is difficult here?” or simply “Why?” Did my child have a day full of stressors (i.e. unexpected changes)? Did my child have a particularly difficult night and, as a result, is very tired? When we pause and ask ourselves these questions, it allows us to connect with our child and helps us stay present and in control. Above all else, by being present in this way, it makes our children feel seen; “My parents get it!”

While being human means that we will, of course, miss opportunities to empathize and connect in this way with our children, taking small steps each day to pause and wonder what may be difficult for them will still have some important benefits. By fostering this connection, parents are creating opportunities for more open and honest communication. As such, children are more likely to turn to their parents when they feel validated and connected in this way. This also creates opportunities for children to process their difficult emotions with parents, rather than letting these emotions simmer and boil over.

Conversation starters that can help foster this feeling of being seen include more specific questions, such as “How did it go with wearing your mask all day?” and “What was hard, what was easy?”

Transitions are hard at the best of times, and transitioning back to school this year may be particularly challenging for children and youth. It makes sense, then, that they may have an increased amount of distress, fear, and anxiety leading up to and during this transition period. When we are feeling these strong emotions, our sympathetic nervous system is activated and we may go into reactive modes of fight, flight, or freeze. We may observe our children become upset over “spilled milk” that seems unrelated to school, yet it is the “straw that broke the camel’s back” so to speak.

During these highly intense emotional moments, parents can help simply by being there and offering empathy, and perhaps a hug or a gentle touch. Rarely are children able to reason logically during those moments (despite parents’ efforts!). For instance, if a child is having a tantrum, a parent can help sooth the child by validating their emotions (“You are mad and sad because I could not take you to the mall”) while soothing through gentle touch and calm voice. One can simply say “I am right here when you are ready to talk.” Once children are able to regain control and think more clearly, parents can model and teach their children calming strategies. The main idea behind this is to teach our children that they are in control and they can be problem solvers when they have big emotions.

Some calming strategies include using deep breathing exercises to help stay calm, choosing some soothing music to listen to, or creating a calming space at home (filled with favourite calming tools, such as stuffed animals, soft pillow and blanket, books, play doh, squeeze ball) where the child can go and relax.

The acronym “P-E-A-C-E” can be a helpful one to keep in mind here: your presence, engagement, affection, calm, and empathy. Some of these components are more difficult than others. For instance, staying calm in the midst of our child’s yelling, or staying calm upon discovering that our child has lied to us about something important, may be particularly challenging. This is an opportunity to express that you, the parent, may be feeling upset or frustrated, but it is also an opportunity to model how to stay in control (e.g., taking a deep breath in the moment). By keeping in control, we are modeling emotional management for our child. During these moments, it may also be helpful to get down on the same or lower level as your child, to help communicate that there is no threat and the child does not have to remain in a defensive posture. The neat thing here is that the brain gets the message from the body that it is safe! At the end of the day, the message we want to send to our child is “Whatever you need, I am here.” This message helps children feel protected and invites connection and openness.

The beautiful thing of putting together the feelings of safety, being seen, and soothed is that they come together to feeling secure. Feeling secure is being able to seek out support when needed while also being independent and reflect on one’s own feelings and thoughts. This also means that we have helped our children become more resilient in the face of stress (“This is hard right now, but I will be okay”). Ultimately, as parents, we want to provide our children with the ability to explore the world while also remaining a haven of safety and a place they can return to when needed.

Marina Heifetz, Ph.D., is a Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychologist. She works with children,
adolescents, and families at York Region CBT clinic. She has also published and presented various
research papers on topics of healthy relationships, mindfulness, developmental disabilities,
parenting, and mental health. Dr. Heifetz enjoys teaching about child development, mental
health, and mindfulness, and has taught through numerous community workshops as well as at
the University of Toronto. She is also a mom.

This article was also published at Psychology Today, click here to view it: