The school year begins with a flurry of activity and in no time the laid-back days of summer seem a distant memory. The shift from summertime to school time can be a jarring one for both parents and children.
I asked Vanessa Lapointe, author of “Discipline Without Damage,” and the upcoming release, “Parenting Right From the Start: Laying a Healthy Foundation in the Baby and Toddler Years,” for her school-year specific parenting advice. Here’s what she said.
The Epoch Times: The transition back to school presents unique challenges for parents and children. What are some of the common ways parents find it difficult to maintain discipline at home after their kids head back to school?
Ms. Vanessa Lapointe: Parents are busy, too, and so staying on top of routines and managing the emotional fallout for kids can sometimes feel overwhelming. This can be especially so when routines and emotions collide.
So when you ask your child to sit down to homework or complete a chore (or whatever the routine is) and an emotional reaction follows, it can be easy to throw your hands up as a parent and claim defeat or stomp off in frustration. This can start to be cumulative with parents and kids alike feeling absolutely done.
I suggest three key things to get you through. The first is to have some compassion for yourself and your child during this time of transition. It is a little like being mowed down by a freight train, so it makes sense that it will take some time to get back into the swing of things.
The second is to stick with the routines even though it is hard, while having room for a bit of “gray zone.” This means that you follow through on homework and chores and bedtimes and all of that, and that you avoid being rigidly black and white. So if you can see that your child is really enjoying whatever show they are watching but it has snuck up on dinner time, you might push pause on dinner for four minutes while the show finishes.
Third and finally, regulate your emotions so that you can be available to regulate your child’s emotions. If everybody is all up in their business then nobody will be settled and sorted.
The Epoch Times: The transition after school seems to be a tricky time for a lot of children. Why are meltdowns so common after school?
Ms. Lapointe: After-school meltdowns are common because of something called “defensive detachment.” It goes like this. Kids need their special big people—parents—to help them cope. Then, they are separated from you for the whole of the school day.
While at school they have to manage a lot of things—following the rules, controlling impulses, sitting still and quiet, social interactions, school work, and so much more! This depletes their coping reserves.
The more sensitive and intense your child, or perhaps if your child has additional needs (learning, social, developmental), then the depletion of reserves can be significant. It would sure be handy to have their special big person—you—with them to help them navigate it all.
And then you show up to pick them up after school, and although there may be an initial flood of relief and happiness for your child, it can very quickly be followed up with the after-school meltdown. Bam! You are now the worst parent ever, who packed the worst lunch ever, who made them wear the worst uncomfortable pants ever, and who is making them walk the worst longest walk home ever!
That’s the meltdown via defensive detachment. Children subconsciously seek to protect themselves by detaching from you following a long period of separation because being vulnerable to attachment feels like too much! All of it is too much. And so, here we are at the after-school meltdown.
The Epoch Times: Homework can sometimes be the source of anxiety and emotional outbursts. When kids are struggling to get through their homework, what can parents do to support them?
Ms. Lapointe: Create an environment conducive to homework completion—quiet, free of distraction (visual, auditory, etc.).
Establish routines so that homework is done at mostly the same time of day, in the same space each day if possible.
Sit with your upset child and really listen to them. Don’t try to fix it. Just empathize with them, “It feels hard; you are worried you won’t do well; you don’t understand; it feels like you might never get this!”
Provide your child support in “chunked” manner. So break down the homework into manageable bite-sized pieces and go one step at a time.
If your child is really overwhelmed, go for a reset and then come back to it. Best reset is going to be green time outside for a play or a walk or a trampoline bounce. Try to avoid screen time as a reset.
If homework challenges persist, check in with the teacher, consider if it is too much, and think about whether there might be a bigger issue at play here, such as a learning difference.
The Epoch Times: In addition to heading back to school, many children participate in after-school activities. What advice do you have for parents about signing their children up for extracurriculars. How much is too much?
Ms. Lapointe: Children today are often way overscheduled. There is an intense focus in our culture on preparing children for what is ahead and a misguided belief that exposure to a wide variety of afterschool activities is helpful for child development.
Unfortunately, being overscheduled actually works against child development. Children need downtime and lots of it. They need the world around them to be quiet enough so they can hear themselves.
Depending on your child, you will need to scale back more or less. If you have an intense, sensitive child, it might be that all extracurricular is too much because school on its own has them feeling flooded out. Other kids can handle being busy several nights a week and cope fine.
So think about the individual needs of your child and adjust accordingly.
The Epoch Times: Bedtime routines play an important role in the school week. What strategies do you recommend when it comes to school-night bedtime routines?
Ms. Lapointe: Have the bedtime routine be one hour from start to finish. This is how long it takes the human brain to go from fully awake to asleep. Avoid screens during this period.
Have it be a routine–this provides a behavioral signal to the body that it is time to begin gearing down to sleep.
As part of the routine, make sure your child gets a lot of time with you. This connection will put them emotionally at rest which then makes physical rest easier to arrive at. Read together, talk about the day, etc.
If your child is struggling, consider a bedtime meditation—one that you read to them or a pre-recorded one. Several are available through apps and online.