Afraid to Start School

In this episode: A parent writes that her 5-year-old is afraid to start kindergarten. Though she’s sympathetic that this is a big transition for her son, as he’s never been cared for by anyone but his grandparents or a cousin, she’s recovering from breast cancer and also has a two-year-old, so she needs this to work. While she and her husband both try to validate his feelings and talk about the fun parts of schools, he ends up whining and breaking down, saying he isn’t going to like it and doesn’t want to go. She’s struggling and admits, “I have no words and don’t know the right thing to do or say.”

Transcript of “Afraid to Start School”

Hi there. This is Janet Lansbury, and welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m going to be offering feedback to a parent who is concerned because her son seems to be afraid to start school, and she and her husband are struggling to figure out how to handle his complaints and his feelings about this big change. Here’s the note I received:

“Hi Janet. I’m writing because I was not able to find any advice about children who are afraid to start school. In a few weeks, my five-year-old will start kindergarten. Every time I bring up back-to-school shopping, that someone we know might be in his class, or some things that I might’ve done in school, he gets whiny and says that he isn’t going to like it and doesn’t want to go. Last October, I was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. This has become a full-time job, in addition to being a stay-at-home mom, which we all know is about three full-time jobs. I also have a two-year-old little girl. Ever since my son was born, my husband and I have talked about homeschooling, but with this diagnosis, our plans changed. We found an excellent private school that is very accommodating to what I would like a school to be: small, child-focused, with outdoor classes and play as well as academics. He’s never been babysat by anyone but his grandparents or cousin, and we never did daycare. He’s always been with me or my husband.

When he starts practically crying, saying he doesn’t want to go, or he only wants school if I’m there, I don’t know what to say. I did tell him that there are decisions his parents have made, and this is something that we’re going to be doing. I understand that change can be scary. However, he’s quite the negotiator, and any conversation where I try to validate his feelings or tell them about the benefits and fun part of school always just turns into him trying to negotiate a way out of it or breaking down, saying it’s going to be terrible. I tried to let him have those big feelings and go through the motions, but all I can do is find myself nodding my head “yes,” because I have no words and don’t know the right thing to do or say. Please help. My husband and I love reading and listening to you, but with this topic, we’re just clueless. Thank you so much.”

And she signs her name with the subscript “Breast Cancer Survivor.”

So, first of all, I’m so sorry to hear that this parent is dealing with this huge health issue, and I will be thinking about her and hoping that she continues in her recovery. I’m sure it is true that as she says, this becomes a full-time job in addition to being a stay-at-home mom, “which is already about three full-time jobs.” So yes, her focus has to be all these different directions, and of course, number one is her health.

What can happen when parents have health challenges like this, or if their child has had health challenges, even being in an NICU when they are a newborn, these challenges make us feel vulnerable. And when we feel vulnerable, either about our child or ourselves or both, it is much harder to be confident when our children have strong emotions about certain situations or limits that we set, and in this case, separation, needing to separate from his parents and rise to the occasion for this big challenge.

But what children need to be able to do this is, number one, for us to have confidence in both the situation that we’ve chosen for them, it sounds like this parent found an ideal situation for our son and, also, that we believe in our child’s readiness and that they are capable.

That doesn’t mean that we won’t have any doubts, but when we are engaging with our child around these topics, they can’t be the ones to validate our decisions. Whether that decision is that “I’m going to go into the bathroom or the shower by myself for a few minutes, even though you want me right now,” or “This is a wonderful school for you, this is the right place, this is the right choice,” number one has to always be our conviction.

Putting yourself in your child’s shoes, how can we rise up to a new job or a new situation if the people that are giving us this job think that we can’t do it, that we’re not up to the task, and that if we show the slightest weakness, all of that is going to be validated for them that we can’t do it?

So that’s the big challenge here, and it sounds like this parent knows, at least on some level, that she has to be strong for her child in this situation so he can express and move through his fears. Again, children can’t be the ones to validate. I think most of us, and I’m definitely including myself, just want our kids to say, “Hey, yeah, this is great, yeah, I’m excited,” without any downsides, without any melting down or any indecision or doubt in themselves. If they could say, “Bye, have a great day, Mom and Dad, I’m going to have a wonderful time, and then we’ll talk about it after.” But they can’t, they can’t be the ones to do that.

Yes, occasionally they do, but that’s rare, because they’re at a sensitive, emotional stage of life, and they will put those feelings out there, usually. They’ll open up and show us their insides and the struggles they’re having. And they need us to welcome that and understand that it’s part of the process, that it’s safe, and that it’s not a sign that we are doing something wrong or that we’ve made a wrong choice.

Now, if our children go into these situations, go into school, let’s say, or to a care situation, and we give them our conviction, and also what that implies is welcoming them to have all of their uncomfortable feelings around it, and let’s say our child continues to struggle week after week, and let’s say the reports from that environment are that our child is not thriving there, that they’re having difficulties. Then I would take another look and assess, rethink, and maybe make a change. But we can’t start out that way, or children have nowhere, again, for their feelings to land.

This mother says her child’s “never been babysat by anyone but his grandparents or cousin and never did daycare,” so this whole experience of being in the care of people who are strangers is very new, and yes, it is scary, but that’s okay. It’s okay to be really scared and put one foot in front of the other anyway because we don’t have a choice, because our parents have made this choice for us.

And so the second part of this situation that’s extremely important is that our child gets to complain, be the opposite of excited. Our child gets to melt down about it as much as he needs to. And he’ll need to more if we are even subtly pushing back on that, which I think this parent, without meaning to, might be doing.

When this parent brings up that she tells him about the benefits and fun part of school, I would be very careful about that, especially with a child that’s this keyed in to his mother’s feelings, which is what she describes, that he’s the negotiator. He’s very tuned in, so if she’s trying to say, “Well, look at the bright side,” or even what she says in the beginning about, “Oh, so-and-so’s going to be in your class,” if she tries to put that out there to him as, “See, you should feel good about this,” the undercurrent there could be understandably, “Help me to feel better. Be excited. I want you to be excited.”

Of course we do, of course we want that for our children, but it is not fair to ask that of them. That can’t be their job, to make us feel better about the decision. And again, sometimes it happens, and of course that’s wonderful, and we do see at some point that the decision we made is positive. But we have to let go of that in the beginning. Actually, all the way through, we have to let go of that and just let children report however they feel about things, and not feel threatened by that ourselves. And then when he gets whiny and says that he isn’t going to like it and he doesn’t want to go, instead of seeing that as an “Uh-oh, I got to say something, I got to do something, this is bad,” seeing that as a healthy part of the process that’s actually very, very positive. The more he shares, the further he’s getting through that process.

To perceive that as positive is the hardest part of this and the most important part as parents.

So, when he gives the specifics, all we have to do is really be willing to go there with him and connect with him there, all the time holding on to what’s underneath this, which is: We’ve made this choice and we know it’s the right one, but it’s something we want you to share with us. We’re not going to try to talk you out of it or deny it in any way.

If there are factual things that he says, like, “I’m never going to get a break at school to do what I want,” then of course you can reply with the facts. “Actually, you are, but wow, it feels to you like you’re going to be trapped in this place for hours and you’re not going to be able to get out. You actually are, but I hear that’s a fear that you have. That’s a feeling you’re having around it.” That kind of attitude.

And whining can be kind of a constipated cry. So see it that way, instead of seeing it as something I’ve got to fix or that it’s a bad sign, or something I’m doing wrong. This parent does not need any more feelings of discomfort herself.

She says she’s trying to say the right things, “I don’t know what to say.” She doesn’t have to say things to steer him in any different direction. Just connect with the direction he’s in. It’s a huge mind shift, but it’s so much less work, because when we’re trying to put a dam up against this rush of feelings that needs to pass through, it’s an inordinate amount of work for us, and it’s work that actually doesn’t pay off at all and only makes the situation more difficult, makes more pressure.

So, let go, let these feelings be, and know that, yes, this may be the first time he’s needing to share these kinds of feelings because he hasn’t been in this situation before. That’s all the more reason to trust and welcome them as they come. So when he says that he doesn’t want to go, or he only wants to go to school if she’s there: “Wow, yeah, it’s hard to think about leaving us and being with these other people that right now you don’t know. That’s a big step forward.” Just letting that be, relaxed, welcoming, wanting to hear everything that’s going on with your little guy, wanting him to show his heart to you.

She says she tells him that these are decisions his parents have made, and that “this is something that we’re going to be doing.” That sounds fine, but it doesn’t sound as confident in your choice as if you said something like, “We’ve made this choice because we think it’s going to be wonderful for you and that you are going to thrive there, but I know it doesn’t feel that way. I know it feels new and scary and so hard to make these changes and do something you’ve never done before.” With open arms for him to share those “negative” feelings that are actually really, really positive to express.

In my classes sometimes, I share a story about how, years ago, I was first being asked to speak in front of people about this approach. I am not naturally the type of person that wants to speak in front of people, I’m more introverted, but I realized that I needed to figure this out. So, I worked with a coach and he helped me a lot, and then that first time that I had to speak in front of a big group of people, I was in a room waiting to be introduced, just so nervous. And in those moments before, I let these voices come through, or maybe I just didn’t know how to stop them, I don’t know. But the voices were, You can’t do this. Who do you think you are? There’s no way you can do this. They were those voices, those wonderful voices. And I allowed myself to go there. It just came over me, actually. I got choked up, the tears came, I cried a little bit. I wasn’t planning this at that time, but I released the tension, and what I noticed was that I felt so much better, because I just got out of my head, and I was able to put one foot in front of the other and go out there comfortably, and I wasn’t nervous the rest of the way through.

So, in a sense, this is what children have to do when they make these big steps, and it can be a child going to the same school that they were at, but now they’re in a new grade with a new teacher and a new mix of children. Towards the end of summer, I hear a lot about children feeling emotional, having difficult behavior, and it’s because of this. They’re processing these feelings, these fears, this stage fright, and the more we can encourage them to do that, when it comes, we don’t have to try to make anything happen. Just trust, trust their process and that they are capable of feeling all the feelings.

It was so freeing for me to be able to do a talk after letting go of all that tension, and it’s freeing for us as parents when we’re not trying to fix things, and we’re trusting and allowing them to be, knowing that it’s always right for children to feel whatever they feel. It’s always the best thing that they could possibly be doing in that moment, and it will bond us, and then the words always come. We don’t have to search for words. A lot of times, it’s just echoing what our child has said in a connected way.

This mom says that she tries to validate feelings, and she tries to let him have his feelings, and she goes through the motions. Right, but he’s feeling her doubts. He’s feeling that opening for negotiation that isn’t very comfortable for him at all. He’s basically trying to say by negotiating, “Look, here are some places where I need you to be stronger. I need you to be more sure of yourself so that I can do this.” That’s what he’s unconsciously saying by negotiating. He’s noticing that there are some loopholes, and those aren’t going to help him.

But breaking down, saying, “It’s going to be terrible,” she says he does that, that is the gold right there. The sooner he can do that and go to the depths of that feeling, how terrible and awful it’s going to be, the sooner he’s going to feel better about it. And he may repeat this every day for a while.

The more you can show him he’s welcome to share, it doesn’t intimidate you, make you doubt your choice, the easier it’s going to be. Because if we can feel it, we can deal with it.

And if he does try to negotiate, I don’t know exactly what that’s looking like, maybe “I don’t have to go,” or maybe “You’ll come with me and stay,” don’t jump on those ideas. Take them in from a place of confidence in your decision, again, first and foremost, and then say something like, “Wow, those are some interesting ways to go. We’re not going to do those. But yeah, sounds like you feel like that would work better for you.” Just validate.

I hope some of this helps, and again, I hope this mother feels better very soon and heals completely.

Also, please check out some of the other podcasts on my website JanetLansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. And both of my books are available on audio, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can find them through my website or on audible.com, and you can also get them in paperback at Amazon and in ebook at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple.com.

Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.

6 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. avatar Cunningham Laura says:

    Every morning it’s a battle with my six year old daughter. She has started first grade. Kindergarten was also a battle, but it was tearful compliance. Now, she will literally fight me and refuse to get dressed. She will kick and scream and run from me and cry at the top of her lungs. We are only in the second week of school and every morning it’s awful! I keep my cool and say allllll the things, but eventually WE HAVE TO LEAVE THE HOUSE. ugh!!! Please help!!!!

    1. How is she when she’s there? If she’s reportedly doing well, I would see this as need for you to hold some space, real space, for these feelings. That doesn’t mean waiting them out, but really, really allowing and encouraging all the negativity while you confidently help her move forward. Children need us to welcome the feelings and also remain confident that they can do this.

      1. avatar Cunningham Laura says:

        Janet,
        I read this article at least three times last night, as well as several others of yours. I realized that while I was hearing what she said, I also quickly came back with ‘positives’ like, “but your friends will be there,” and “you will do fun stuff like music class.” It occurred to me, through your helpfulness, that while I *thought* I was really giving her space, I was effectively negating the validity of her feelings by coming back with these perceived perks.

        This morning I did not come back with a single thing. I basically repeated what she said. When she said, “I’m too scared to go to school,” I said “I know you’re scared. New things are scary.“ When she said she didn’t want to go I simply replied, “I know, you really don’t want to go. “

        It made all the difference! I think she finally felt heard! Even though she was crying, she got her body in motion and I was able to calmly help her get dressed, brush her hair, etc, and get to the school in plenty of time.

        I thank you from the bottom of my weary heart! I truly felt like a failure, that I had not prepared her well enough. But new things are always going to be hard – for all of us, and we simply need to be heard without being reminded of why it’s good for us or why we still have to go, etc. A thousand times I thank you! And thank you for your reply! I cannot express in words how much your reaching out means to me !!

        XOXO !!

        1. Wonderful news, Laura!!! Well done! And sharing this info is my absolute pleasure.

        2. Wonderful news, Laura! Well done! And sharing this info is my absolute pleasure. x Janet

  2. Hi Janet!
    Your posts are wonderful and I love them like many people here. My situation is much similar to the one that is depicted above. My 3.5yr old, doesn’t do any activity in his Montessori. Itseems he just sits near the shoe rack and doesn’t do anything at all. For the first two months, he roamed around with his teacher to all the class rooms. Now, as they ask him to be in his room and do some activity, he separates himself and sits in a corner:(. It feels so painful. I feel so lost. We had threatened him saying that those kids who don’t go to their classes would be put to a stricter school where they force things. He says he doesn’t want to go to that kind of school, but at the same time he doesn’t want to do any activity. I feel guilty for threatening him. But, I really have no resources to help this child out. Please help me out.

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