by Susan Verde | August 24, 2017 3:27 am
The email arrived in my inbox the first week of August. It began like this…
“Dear parents, below is a list of school supplies for Fall 2017…” Instantly, I felt my stomach lurch and my shoulders rose up to my ears, and I thought NOOOOO it’s still summer!! I am not ready! My own anxiety level shot through the roof, but after my initial response, I brought my attention to my feet on the ground and while placing a hand on my belly, noticed my breath and began to slow down. From there I made the choice NOT to bring up the email to the kids just yet and let them finish out their summer without too much school talk. I then began to think about how I can help them to transition and cope with their own back to school anxiety. What are the tools that we can give our children to get through all the ups and downs and good and not so good that lie ahead in anticipation of school once it begins?
The best way to cope with anxiety on any level is breath. Teaching your children to connect with their breath can be the greatest gift you can give them. It starts as simply as noticing. Breathing in and out through the nose, placing a hand on the belly, under the nose, on the chest, having your child become aware of where the breath is in the body and it’s qualities..fast, slow, deep or shallow. This simple attention brings attention away from the outside chaos and turns it inward. From there a child can slow the breath down, lengthening the out breath and finding a moment. This connection to breathing can not only calm the nervous system, but also gives a child a place to pause and make choices that serve him better rather than reacting to the anxiety or situation of stress around him. Notice what happens to the physical body when you breathe deeply…do the shoulders drop? Does the jaw soften? Does the mind feel more clear? Let your child know this is a powerful tool and can be accessed anytime, anywhere.
Kids don’t need a 90 minute vinyasa practice in order to help them with the stresses of returning to school, unless that’s already a part of their lives. What can be helpful though, is knowing a few poses that can stand alone and directly address their experience. Mountain pose can help kids find their feet and establish a solid connection to the earth, helping them practice staying steady even while life around them may feel chaotic. Tree pose helps with both balance and focus as well as sense of rooting to rise as they reach hands to the sky while planting one foot on the earth. Downward dog can help children turn things literally upside down. Being inverted in this pose changes perspective and helps kids not only bring a sense of playfulness into their worlds but also changes the direction and flow of blood and oxygen to the brain helping the pre-frontal cortex (thinking and reasoning) work better. These physical postures and sensations translate to the emotional. Giving children some yoga poses to have in their “back pockets” provides them with access to supportive tools in the face of stress and anxiety.
Mindfulness is really the practice of paying attention to one’s own experience– in the moment, without judgement. Helping kids learn to notice can be extremely helpful in moments of stress and anxiety. Begin with guiding them to feel their feet on the ground, their physical place in space. This provides a context and a “footing”from which to begin to cope with challenge. Activities such as mindful eating and mindful listening as well as breathing can help children pay attention to their own senses and sensations at any given moment. The more they learn to do this, the more they will be able to feel their feet, notice their breath, name their emotions and learn to self-regulate and access the “thinking” parts of the brain instead of the reactive parts. Dr.Dan Siegal has a beautiful video explaining what happens to the brain when we are stressed. It’s a great one to watch with kids to remove any sense that what they experience in fight, flight or freeze mode is their fault. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gm9CIJ74Oxw
This is where the non-judgemental piece of mindfulness practice is so helpful. Kids (and adults) have a tendency to blame themselves for nervousness or distress and tell themselves, “II shouldn’t” feel a certain way. Learning to notice emotions and the physical feelings associated with them as an experience without blame, can help children let go of and move past these big emotions quickly, viewing them as something that happened, but not who they are, and allow them to choose their responses.
As a parent or caregiver, one of the best ways you can help your kids cope with back to school anxiety and beyond is to be present. Thich Nhat Hahn says it best “When you love someone, the best thing you can offer is your presence. How can you love if you are not there?” ~
Whatever your child’s experience, being there, listening without advice, response or opinion just full on attention can be extremely calming and build trust and connection. Just being heard can make the big things seem small and can give you as the listener clues to what is really going on and how ultimately you can be of support. When children choose not to express their anxiety they often create stories in their heads that are much worse than reality. The likelihood that they will share (especially as they become tweens and teens) is greater if they feel the empathy and compassion of a parent or caregiver. So when anxiety strikes, turn off cell phones, pull up a chair and make time to listen.
Using these “tools” before school starts and throughout the year can help you and your children navigate stress and anxiety. Remember to put your own oxygen mask on first by cultivating your own practices of mindfulness, yoga and self-care (whatever that looks like for you). Being good to yourself helps you to care for others, and your kids will see you modeling self-love and be more likely to follow suit. So feel your feet, take a deep breath and go ahead and order those school supplies.
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