Tips for Communicating with Children as They Adjust from Summer to School
By Jessica Anderson
As families transition from the summer to a new school year, children, parents, and other caregivers may be feeling anxiety, stress, or excitement, or any combination of feelings. Different family members may have different feelings, and these feelings may even change day to day. Having time to connect is an important part of daily routines, even when parents bump up against short answers from their children or feel limited by a lack of time and energy at the end of a full day.
Think about the times you remember from your childhood. We often hold closest to our hearts the moments of being seen, understood, and enjoyed. Even when we don’t remember what happened, these interactions have a deep and lasting impact. Communication is a key part of building this connection with your child.
Whether you are communicating with a kindergartener or a freshman in high school, positive communication is vital to enhancing self-esteem, social skills, problem-solving skills, and self-regulation. Without even knowing it, caregivers are teaching children how to repair relationships, handle frustrations, and connect with others. By getting your children used to talking about their life early on and making it a part of your normal routine, it will reduce their defensiveness when they are older or when they experience challenges.
As children develop and evolve, so does their communication style. What may have worked in the past for one child or for other children, may not work now. It can be helpful to have a big toolbox to pull from when you aren’t sure what to do next. The following tips can help caregivers positively communicate with their children:
- Make sure your child is getting enough sleep, is well-fed, and is physically comfortable. This will impact their mood and therefore their interactions with you.
- Establish a check-in routine and let it change as your child changes. It could be thumbs up, thumbs down (with a further description), or sharing the best and most challenging parts of their day over the dinner table. When you both share during this activity, you are helping your child practice listening as well.
- Explore what they are doing in class, experiencing in friendships, and learning about current events from news, social media, and peers.
- Teens are figuring out who they are and who they are separate from you. They experience changes and pressure, which can make them moody and difficult by nature. Let them have different opinions, interests, and ideas. Remember they still love you even when they disagree or get frustrated.
- Brainstorm together something you both enjoy that you can do together. This can be something you’ve already done or something you’ve both wanted to try.
- Let your child teach you something or create something with you.
- Be creative with asking more than yes/no questions. Try “I’ve been thinking about you. Tell me about…” or “I’ve been wondering how you feel/think about…” or “What did/didn’t you like about….”
- Listen with curiosity, and ask questions to show interest to help your children feel valued and heard.
- Show your children they have your attention. Put away your phone or other gadget. Sit down by them or get down to their level.
- Use humor and laugh together. This is great for our health and feeling connected.
- Spend five distraction-free minutes with your child during your first contact after school.
- If your child needs a break after school, let them breathe and relax and find the five distraction-free minutes later.
- Be spontaneous and look for open moments to talk: in the car, preparing dinner, standing in line, on a walk, or getting ready for bed.
- Time in the car can be a great time to connect because family members do not have to make direct eye contact and tend to be more open.
- Try sitting by each other or doing an activity side-by-side to take the pressure off talking. Sometimes communicating is nonverbal.
- When you are talking, use your body language and facial expressions to show you are actively listening and interested in what they are saying.
- Repeat what they say to show you are listening and to check in on what you are hearing. “It seems like you are sad about…. Tell me more about it.”
- Validate what they are sharing. “I understand why you feel that way.”
- Help your child find their own solutions by asking them what’s helped in the past, what they would like to do, or what kind of help they want from you. Feel free to share ideas, knowing they will pick the one that works for them and you don’t have to be the one to solve the problem.
- Resist the first urges to give advice or make something into a teaching moment. Keep listening. You will be able to help your child after they feel like you heard them. If you sense resistance, ask what you missed and what they need from you.
- Avoid lecturing, criticizing and/or yelling. Wait until both of you are calm so your child can hear the advice you are sharing or the lesson you want them to learn.
- Let your child signal when they don’t want to talk or need a break. Tell them that’s okay and you would like to connect later. You will be teaching them how to set up boundaries and how to regulate their emotions.
- Show your children that you take delight in who they are and the time you spend together. It doesn’t have to be every interaction but make space for this to happen.
As you communicate with your child, if you notice a bad day turns into many bad days, keep exploring what your child is experiencing. Whether a child is starting a new school or just experiencing common fears about a new grade level, caregivers may notice a change in a child’s behavior or temperament as school begins. Worries and sadness can manifest in physical symptoms, and a child may complain of headaches, stomach aches, or inability to sleep. It’s important to help children work through these feelings because it can easily have implications on their ability to learn in the classroom. Children’s mental health is foundational to their ability to experience academic and social success in school.
If you have ongoing concerns about your child’s social, emotional or behavioral development, talk with your child’s teachers, school counselors, or doctor. It can be hard for caregivers to know when to seek outside help with their child’s anxiety, sadness, irritability, or concerning behaviors. A helpful rule of thumb is that if your child has been experiencing physical, mental, and/or emotional signs of anxiety or sadness, more days than not for at least a few weeks, this is likely impacting your child’s school performance, relationships with others, and sense of self. An assessment by a therapist experienced in working with children and adolescents will help you better understand what your child is experiencing and how to help him/her develop strategies for managing their feelings.
NOTE: The information provided should not be used during a mental health emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of a mental health condition. A licensed mental health professional should be consulted for a diagnosis and treatment. Call 911 for mental health emergencies.
Jessica Anderson, LICSW, has worked with children and families for more than 10 years and is currently a therapist at Washburn Center for Children, a leading children’s mental health center in Minnesota. www.washburn.org