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24. Expect More Meltdowns and Power Struggles This Back to School Season

Happy back-to-school season. 'Tis the season of new routines and high emotions.

It’s the season where your super flexible kids become little monsters that dig their heels in over the stupidest things. Hahaha….alright, they’re not little monsters, but it sure can feel like it some days.

It’s the season of stubbornness, unrealistic demands, lengthy meltdowns, name-calling, and fighting more with their brother or sister, to name a few things you might see from your little one during the first few weeks of school. 

This is NORMAL. Maddening, but normal.

This is your child going through a period of change and not quite knowing how to process and deal with their emotions.

Change is hard, and heading back to school after summer break is HARD. Even if your child likes school, and even if they’re excited to see their friends. 

Because change is change and it makes them feel off balance and unsettled.

They are grappling with trying to understand all of the new rules and expectations that are being placed on them. They’re trying to figure out their role in the classroom and may have several different teachers who have slightly different ways of dealing with them. They're trying to figure out where they fit in with their peers, making new friends, and dealing with mean people. 

Your child might be feeling restricted and like their freedom has been taken away. They find themselves confined to a desk after a couple of months of free play and outdoor adventures.

They’re exhausted and depleted and perhaps even on a new food routine with the different lunch and recess schedules.

Heading back to school is A LOT. 

It can feel overwhelming and your child may feel out of control.

Change feels unstable and in the brain, change is unsafe. Our brain likes to know what to expect so it can keep us safe. So even fun and exciting change can feel unsafe to the brain. 

Now, all of these feelings may come out in different ways depending on your child and this might be triggering to you.

Know that this is your child’s way of communicating that something isn’t right and they’re trying to cope.

You might see your child crying over stupid things. Insignificant things that they wouldn’t have cared about a few weeks ago. They just would have rolled with the punches but now it’s a disaster. So you might see more tears.

You might see more aggression: hitting, name calling, I hate you. You might find your child blaming you for their mistakes. “I wanted my hair in a ponytail and it’s all your fault that we didn’t do it. You did it on purpose! You wanted me to look ugly!”

These are typically retaliation or revenge-type behaviors, which really just translate to “I’m feeling so hurt inside and it's unbearable so I’m going to go on the attack to defend myself”. 

If we’re thinking of the fight, flight, or freeze response when the brain feels unsafe, this is the fight response. 

You might find your child becomes super stubborn and there’s no flexibility or willingness to compromise, even on things they normally compromise or go along with. 

They might make unrealistic demands, like asking for a popsicle for breakfast or wanting to wear a bathing suit to school. And there’s no reasoning with them.

This is your child’s way of telling you that they feel so out of control that they’re trying to control everything around them so they can feel more in control. 

Trying to regain control is a natural response to feeling out of control.

They also might be intentionally trying to pick a fight with you (like when they demand a popsicle for breakfast) so they can have a big meltdown and let out all of the pent-up emotions inside. And when I say intentional, I don’t mean that it’s a logical, conscious decision. It’s more of an unconscious way of dealing with emotions. 

It’s a sign that they have a lot of emotions bottled up inside and they need to let them all come spilling out. 

And then on top of this, they’re more likely to fight with their siblings during this time period, because they just don’t have the patience, they’re not willing to be flexible and play with other people’s ideas, they’re sick of being told what to do all day by their teachers that they just can’t stand listening to their brother or sister telling them what to do.

So you will see more fighting.

I want to again remind you that this is a NORMAL part of dealing with change. It will pass in a couple of weeks…. Usually, it starts to settle down within the first 3-4 weeks unless something else is happening. 

It’s a wave we need to ride as parents and we need to help our kids understand and work through these big emotions because it’s no fun feeling like this. They don’t want to be upset or unreasonable.

So what can you do?

The first thing you need to do is to take care of yourself. And I KNOW this is hard to do, especially when your child is so demanding and needy, BUT it’s the only way you’ll be able to stay calm and level-headed during this chaotic time. 

You will not be able to support your child if you are melting down or feeling overwhelmed and then also trying to control everything. That will work against you.

So consciously taking care of yourself during this time is soooooo important. 

This doesn’t have to be complicated, and no it doesn’t mean you have to take a candle-lit bubble bath every night.

It might mean you get a 5-minute workout in the morning, a shower each day, and post a helpful calm-down strategy on your fridge to help remind you how you want to deal with your stress. Because sometimes it’s hard to come up with ideas in the midst of your temper rising or when you’re out of patience. You can look at the fridge and remember that you thought silently screaming into your hand would help :)

The second thing you can do, and this one is related to your child, is to remember that connection is WAY more important than correction.

Remember, your child feels overwhelmed and unsafe… change makes their brain feel unsafe. So we want to connect with our child and when we do this, we signal to their brain that they are safe. They can calm down. They don’t have to be in fight mode. They can relax.

Connecting with your child might look like validating their feelings, hugging them, showing an interest in what they’re saying, or spending a bit of extra time with them when they get home.

Focus on connection first. All of their behavior is driven by emotions, so settle down the emotions first and deal with the correction part later if needed.

In most cases, working through the emotions will get rid of the behaviors.  But sometimes they did something that was really not OK or they hurt someone else and something does need to get resolved. 

Just remember that you’ll be far more successful doing the correction stuff in a calmer moment rather than in the heat of the moment.

This leads me to the third thing you can do: training. 

How do you want your child to express their emotions? How do you want them to handle their overwhelm? What would be an appropriate way for them to tell you, their brother or sister, or anyone else that they’re angry, upset, overwhelmed, want some space, etc.

If they feel like hitting something, what can they hit?

Rather than calling you stupid, what can they say to you when they’re angry?

Maybe you notice that your child always clenches their fists before they hit…. Help them recognize the early warning signs in their body might be helpful.

Think about how you want them to behave. Help them understand what’s OK and what’s really NOT OK. Then practice.

Here’s the thing about training a new response…if you want them to stomp their feet when they’re angry rather than hit their sister, you better react immediately to their feet stomping with the same urgency as them hitting their sister. 

Kids do what works and they’re always communicating through their behavior. If you ignore the foot stomping (which is a signal that they’re upset and need help) then they’ll continue to escalate the situation UNTIL they get help.

So make sure you’re reinforcing the behavior you want by responding and reacting in a timely and meaningful way.

 Remember, it’s NORMAL for your child to be a bit of a disaster as they’re getting settled into their new school routine. It’s a wave that’ll pass and hopefully, some of the suggestions I’ve given you here have been helpful.

If you want to learn more about this kind of stuff, then grab my free training on getting your kids to listen and to learn more about my Parenting Mastery program :)

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