Parent-child dialogue key as school’s back

As vacation ends and school backpacks get readied, parents need to prepare for a range of interactions with their children

Preparing kids for school takes more than vaccines and backpacks. Bullying and technology look different than they did a few decades ago, and the Internet has ushered in a new age of misinformation and anxiety.


Here are some things that experts say parents should be thinking about as their kids and teens head back to school.

PRESCHOOL

An expert tip for talking with preschoolers: Less is more.

“Parents often do a lot of talking at younger kids, and they just aren’t processing language as well as parents think they are,” said Laura Phillips, a clinical neuropsychologist at the Learning and Development Centre at the Child Mind Institute in New York. She recommends that parents keep their sentences to five words or fewer and to show children — rather than tell them — what they need to know.

About a week or two before school begins, parents should start to show children what to expect, including (if possible) seeing their new classroom and meeting their teacher.

“It’s really important to sort of help kids get their feet wet and give them previews,” Phillips said. “Kids have very rich imaginations and fantasy lives, and the idea of a novel teacher can be overwhelming for them.”

Here’s what you can do:

1) To help children adjust, shift sleeping and eating schedules to match that of the classroom’s and introduce some structure into their days as the back to school nears.

2) New preschoolers may experience some big emotions, especially anxiety. Rebecca Barclay, a paediatric psychiatrist at Seattle Children’s Hospital, recommends that parents help their kids manage those feelings by talking to them about their own.

3) Say something akin to: “Gosh, I’m a little bit nervous and kind of excited about this new school, and I’m eager to get through our first week so we can feel more used to the new schedule.”

4) Let kids know that it’s okay to feel worried or nervous but that those feelings will probably pass.

5) Parents should also try to stay upbeat and show confidence about the year ahead. “Children at that age really are following the parent’s lead,” Barclay said. “So if the parent is anxious or uncertain . . . they’re going to pick up on that.”

ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

Parents should continue letting children know what to expect in terms of teachers and school schedules, as well as start talking about how to manage the more complex social issues they might encounter.

Kids who spend all summer away from their friends can get a little anxious when it comes time to enter the classroom. Phillips and Barclay recommend arranging play dates in the weeks leading up to school to give children a chance to reconnect in a relaxed setting.

Depending on the age of the child, parents might also want to go over how to handle potential negative encounters – especially bullying.

“Bullying is of a different nature than it was when we were growing up because it doesn’t turn off at 3 pm when you go home,” Phillips said.

Here’s what you can do:

1) Teach your child what bullying looks like and reassure them that they don’t have to deal with it on their own.

2) Let kids know from the very beginning that you will be monitoring their Internet use and that there will be restrictions. Put together a social media contract as soon as kids express an interest, to establish firm ground rules, limits and expectations.

3) Talk about the ways social media can be beneficial — such as connecting with people across the world – but also emphasise that restricting Internet use is a safety procedure. “We don’t want to communicate to kids that we don’t trust them or that we expect that they’re going to do bad things,” Phillips said. Instead, parents should frame it as: “We don’t trust the world, and we’re trying to protect you from other people.”

MIDDLE SCHOOL

Conversations can get a little more intense as bullying and social media take on bigger roles in kids’ lives — but they don’t have to be more awkward. Experts recommend tackling these issues in small pieces rather than all at once in a big “sit down” conversation, and to talk in casual settings where eyes are diverted, such as in the car or while playing video games.

Conversations about social media — and along with it, safe Internet and phone use — should make kids aware of what it means to project your image and the responsibility that comes with it. Set up ground rules if you haven’t already.

Here’s what you can do:

1) Discuss how to never share passwords with anyone.

2) Tell kids that they must seek parents’ permission before joining social networks or online groups.

3) They should agree to not meet with anyone they ‘met’ online.

4) Not give out personal information, such as home address, to people they don’t already know well and in real life.

5) Inform them about what kind of online behaviour would be considered inappropriate.

Barclay also recommends that parents ask their middle schoolers leading questions: “Is there anything that bothers you that your friends have posted or that you’ve seen online? Anything that you want to chat about?” These questions let kids know that there’s a trusted adult who will listen to them if they’re ever worried about something they see or experience online.

HIGH SCHOOL

Keep up many of the conversations already mentioned, especially as they relate to social media and substance use. But teens can be tough to engage, so experts recommend seeking opportunities to connect through shared pastimes. That way, conversations can happen a little at a time.

Driving is one of the most dangerous activities high schoolers do on a regular basis. Throw texting and bad habits into the mix, and the risks skyrocket.

Here’s what you can do:

1) Talk about safe driving behaviours and also model them, too. Barclay recommends parents that narrate their safe choices: “I’m putting my cellphone in my purse, and I’m putting it in the back seat so I’m not distracted.” This way, parents get the expectation across to their kids without lecturing them.

2) Teach teens what to do if something goes wrong on the road, even if they aren’t the ones driving. Whether it’s a flat tire or an accident, it’s important that they know whom to call and what to do in an emergency.

3) On cellphone usage, make them aware that screens interfere with sleep and that inhibitions drop when people are tired – and that is when teens tend to get into trouble online. Some parents may want to take phones away at night.

“I think that parents are often afraid to take their children’s cellphones away from them,” Phillips said. “They think that their kids will implode, but I think that there’s no reason to have a cellphone with you at night when kids are supposed to be going to bed.”

4) Monitor social media and phone use — less intensively than they did during middle school

— until their children have demonstrated that they’ll act responsibly even when no one is watching.

“Teenagers innately want their privacy, but they have to earn it,” said Stanley Spinner, chief medical officer of Texas Children’s Paediatrics and Texas Children’s Urgent Care. “Teach the child [that] if you are trustworthy and you abide by limits, then you will get more trust and you will get more privileges, but those have to be earned.”

— Washington Post

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