When my eldest daughter started Kindergarten, I was preoccupied by irrational thoughts of following the school bus the 1.2 miles from my home to my child’s school to be sure she gets there safely. I’d then imagine myself hiding in the bushes, wearing those plastic incognito glasses with the fake nose and mustache. I imagined myself watching with binoculars as she made her way into the school. I’d then pay the security guard to let me watch her through the window of the door of her classroom until dismissal. I was really questioning the sanity of our society to let our 5-year-old babies go off into the world without their mommy or daddy to hold their hand, to hug them if they got a boo-boo, or to punch a kid in the nose if they are mean to our sweet angels.
BUT I STAYED STRONG.
I was all smiles at the bus stop. My husband coped with his anxiety by taking about a million photos of her… alone, of her with her sister, of her with the neighbor kid, of her with the backpack, of her without the backpack, of her with the “first day of Kindergarten” chalk board sign, of her with a silly face, of her with a smiley face, of her with the getting annoyed at all the photos face, etc. THEN! Here it comes! The ginormous yellow school bus stopped at my house, with the jolly old guy opening the door saying, “Hey there, come on in.” I gave my girl a hug and kiss and then another hug and then off she went. Just like that.
SHE WAS OUT OF MY VIEW, OUT OF MY PROTECTION, AND INTO THE BIG, BAD WORLD. TEARS FILLED MY EYES AS I WALKED BACK DOWN MY DRIVEWAY AND CONTINUED ON THE CAR RIDE ALL THE WAY TO WORK.
That afternoon, I eagerly left work early to meet my girl at the end of the driveway to welcome her home after her first day of school. She got off the bus and I sank when I saw the look on her face was one of total discomfort. She didn’t want to speak as we walked into the house. “What’s wrong?” (Are you hurt? What happened? What did that wretched school do to you?) “I don’t like the bus” she said after a while. “Why not, honey?,” I asked. “It’s too loud. It’s too bumpy. It takes too long to get home.” Made sense to me.
My first thought was about wrapping my arms around her and stroking her hair and telling her she never had to get on that awful school bus again! In fact, how about if mommy just home-schools you from now on? Then I snapped back to reality to remember that I have a full-time job. A job that wouldn’t allow me to drive her to and from school every day, let alone home-school her for the next 12 years. Also, I am a therapist. I know enough about anxiety to know that if I coddled her and let her ride into school with me for a few days, I was only prolonging an even harder time getting her back on that bus.
At this point, tears welled up in her eyes and panic started to set in. “I just don’t know how I am going to get to school,” she cried. “I just can’t take that bus. What am I going to do?” I gave her a hug. I somehow remembered to validate her feelings through my own panic, “I can understand, buses are long and loud and bumpy.” Then I said, “Come on, let’s get a snack. You must be hungry.” Distraction, yes! Good! My therapy skills were in there somewhere apparently, despite my swelling emotions and clouded thoughts.
Later that evening, I got her talking about her day. She actually really enjoyed Kindergarten. Her teacher was very nice, and the girl next to her played a game with her and had the same lunch box! Phew! A friend with the same lunch box. She must be a good kid with a great mom who also shops sensibly with a coupon at landsend.com for a lunch box that could take the wear and tear of Kindergarten or be replaced, no questions asked. And she likes school. Thank God!
Me: “So, I think maybe you just aren’t used to the bus yet. It’s new. I bet you will feel better about it soon.”
My 5 year old: “No, mom! I won’t get used to it!”
Me: “Well, maybe if you can try it again, it will get better?”
My 5 year old: “No, I don’t like it. I will feel the same. It will not get better.”
I aborted the conversation by saying, “Ok, it’s been a long day and you are tired. Let’s figure this out in the morning.”
That night, I was stewing on this as if my life depended on it. I decided to text a teacher friend, who was also a mom, and probably would know what to do. It was 10pm on the first day of school when the phone rang and I heard my friend’s tired voice responding to my desperate text message. I regurgitated everything that had happened with pressured speech, as if I was calling 911 and had to spit out the situation quickly so they could dispatch an ambulance. I told her my fear that I would not convince my daughter to try to get on the bus the next day. My lovely, tired friend (who probably had to wake up at like five in the morning to go into work as a second grade teacher the next day) took the time to calm my nerves. She then gave me the excellent advice to stop telling my daughter to “try.” Just be matter of fact, she said. Just tell her you know she is going to get on that bus and go to school and have a great 2nd day. She said to say it firmly, and like I believed it. She said to say it as it was the only option.
The next day I felt a little lighter and in better control of my own emotions. I told my daughter exactly what my friend recommended I say. Then I told her that after she rode the bus for a week straight, I would take her to the pet store and let her pick out her very first pet, a beta fish she had been relentlessly asking for all summer. I told her that after she has ridden the bus for a whole week, I would know that she was old enough to care for a pet. I packed her back pack with a couple of small toys, along with a mini coloring book and crayons. This would give her something to do other than sit there in fear for the whole 1.2 miles (which probably felt like 1.2 days with anxiety). It also might attract a new friend to play with who is probably also sitting there with nothing to do, perhaps has no friends yet, and may be a little nervous.
My daughter is entering 4th grade now. She still has anxiety at times. Her fears tend to resolve with time and experience and then move on and attach to something different. So far we have tackled riding the bus, telling on a bully, riding on a train, going to the orthodontist, and performing a solo at her piano recital.
ALL OF THESE THINGS CREATED ANXIETY AND AVOIDANCE AT FIRST.
She has identified her “go-to” coping skills of taking a deep breath, or 5, or 10, or however many it takes to stop crying or to make her belly stop hurting. She writes about the problem, sometimes in the form of a letter to her teacher, to the piano instructor or to me about the problem and how she is feeling. She often doesn’t even deliver the letter, but feels better after she writes it. She also draws butterflies. We also took her to see a therapist a handful of times. The therapist worked with her on identifying how her body feels when she is nervous: “Like butterflies.” She would then rate the severity of the anxiety by the number of butterflies flying around in there. Her anxiety doesn’t send me into panic mode anymore. I am able to shuffle through my course of action in a predictable way each time now. This is key, and I have confidence that we will get through whatever stands in our way together.
WE TURN TOWARD THE PROBLEM, NOT AWAY FROM IT.
Here is the course of action that I use when her anxiety bubbles up, which may be helpful for all of my fellow parents going through similar concerns with your children!
- Talk calmly and matter of factly about doing what is scary and how it will likely feel better afterward. Be confident yourself that your child’s anxiety will improve with exposure to the source of the anxiety. This is the science of how anxiety works in all of us.
- Validate your kiddos’ feelings. It’s not our job to minimize the fear or to claim there is nothing to be scared of. The fear is real to your child. Be caring and considerate as if you are facing one of your fears.
- Turn toward the fear rather than allowing avoidance. Sometimes this means taking verysmall baby steps toward it. Sometimes this means holding our hands while they do it. Even better, holding someone else’s hand because sometimes we hold the “mommy factor.” (The “mommy factor” means that our kids let their emotions hang out, big and raw, with the person they are most comfortable with. They tend to contain them better with other safe adults like a teacher, a family friend or another family member.)
- Provide tools to help kids cope with the uncomfortable. These could be distractions or soothing techniques. (For example: Coloring, drawing butterflies, blowing bubbles, yoga poses, music, etc.)
- Provide reinforcement for their hard work. For example, the Beta fish. But remember, nothing too crazy big that you won’t be able to match it the next time a fear bubbles up. (FYI- I was prepared to buy 6 beta fish if I needed to, but don’t tell my daughter.)
- Get support for mommy. Once I got control of myself, I was able to help my daughter. My friend was the perfect person to provide support because she has expertise as a mom and as a teacher. She is also not someone who may bring additional emotions to the situation like my husband or parent might.
- Practice. We get better (at anything) with practice. There is no magic here. It takes time and consistency.
- Repeat when the next fear bubbles up. As your child grows and develops, fears will be abandoned and new ones will appear. This is par for the anxiety course.
- Find a therapist if you are having trouble implementing the plan or your child is not responding. Sometimes there are other factors to consider like sensory issues or trauma that can complicate a child’s response or a parent’s ability to consistently implement the plan. (Calling your insurance provider or going to PsychologyToday.com is great way to find a local therapist!)
- Remember kids mature with time. They will get better at implementing the plan on their own as they get older. They will need more help from the adults around them when they are little. It may be helpful to include the teacher, the principal, the bus driver, etc. by sharing with them the difficulty your child is having and your plan of action. Some parents worry about the stigma of involving others, and prefer to “wait it out” to see if it improves on its own. However, kids tend to need more support when they are little and could potentially need less or little intervention as they get older if their fears are responded to appropriately.
Tiffany is a licensed clinical social worker with 12 years of experience and the owner of Teamer Counseling. She enjoys working with children, adults and families. She has specialized training in the treatment of anxiety, depression, parenting difficulties, and trauma.