Whenever I battle to assemble some sort of project or figure out something technical, my grandad’s wise words come to mind: “If all else fails, read the instructions.” I then take a moment, sit back and read the instructions. Before I know it, I’m back on track, effectively completing the task at hand – looking quite like a pro, I might add.
Mia started preschool this month and now more than ever, I wish I could just have a ‘Mia-manual’ with proper instructions to effectively help her through the uncertainties of this new chapter in her life. She was so excited to start her first day of school. She woke me up at 4 am, still in her pyjamas, with her schoolbag in her hand, ready to go. She couldn’t get there fast enough; all smiles as she explored her new surroundings. It seemed like she thoroughly enjoyed her first day, but my heart sank as she cried hysterically and refused to go back to school the next day. At first, I thought it might be the newness of it all that is getting to her, but as her anxiety increased I realised that Mia is really battling to adapt. She is used to her safe, relatively quiet space at home with one-on-one attention from me. At school she is confronted with a busy, noisy classroom while sharing her attention with a number of other two-year-olds also gunning to get their individual needs met.
There was a certain revelation that dawned on me; even though going to school was something she was very excited about, the sudden change in her environment was a big deal for her. She is only two years old, but she can experience the full spectrum of emotions that we as adults experience when we are confronted with significant change in our lives.
Mia attends a wonderful school with an excellent programme and the most amazing teachers, but to her everything is new. New environment, new routine, new teacher and new friends. Mia was completely overwhelmed. Experiencing all of the newness at once without having mom or dad there for comfort was a bit too much.
I was completely disillusioned. I thought she would love school, but when Mia came home every afternoon she was highly overstimulated and emotionally overloaded. She didn’t have the capacity to verbalise what she felt or explain what was going on inside her mind, heart and body. What she did show me was tantrums resulting in complete meltdowns, hysterical crying, a total inability to calm herself down, not sleeping well and regressing in her potty training. She was giving me a clear message that she is not OK. What to do in a situation like this?
I desperately just wanted to save her from what she was going through, but I knew that this will not be her last encounter with feelings of anxiety and being overwhelmed. Sometimes, we stop following through on the ultimate good because we get scared when confronted with the current overwhelming situation. It is a good thing that Mia goes to school. Being around friends and learning the skills of social interaction is a good thing. Being in a class with a structured curriculum is a good thing. Developing her body and mind is a good thing.
With wonderful support and guidance from family and friends, I realised that I needed to get back to basics. As hard as it might seem, my responsibility is not to save Mia, it is to guide her through this uncomfortable process with love. I implemented the following principles to help her cope and work through her emotions:
- I made sure that Mia knows how much I love her. My love for her will remain regardless of her behaviour or emotional state of being.
- I reaffirmed the rules and boundaries in the house. I was clear on what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. I was firm but patient.
- I assisted her in voicing her emotions. When she anxiously grabbed hold of me when I dropped her off at school, I said, “I can see that you are scared. Mommy is leaving for work now, but I’ll be back to pick you up. While you are here, you are going to do a lot of fun things and after lunch I’ll come back to pick you up.” I made sure that I kept my promises every time. When she had a meltdown at home I voiced her frustration or feelings of anxiety. I gave her a safe space where she could cry and have a tantrum or meltdown or whatever she needed to do to get the frustration out of her system.
- I helped her deal with her frustration in a constructive way. Mia found it hard to calm herself down so we tried a few calming techniques such as deep pressure or taking a quiet stroll in the garden while holding her tightly in my arms. I explained that sometimes our emotions can make our bodies feel a bit sick and that we need to help our bodies deal with our emotions in order to feel better. We implemented stress relief activities like tearing up some newspapers, then scrunching it into balls and throwing it at a target. I asked Mia if she could show me where in her body she was experiencing these emotions. She pointed to her stomach and I explained to her that we could try to shake out the emotions while stomping on a piece of newspaper. I found all of these techniques very helpful and Mia enjoyed them, as it eventually turned into a game we could play together. I also made sure she got enough physical exercise by encouraging her to jump on the trampoline and do climbing activities that she loves in order to relieve the built-up anxiety and stress.
- I made sure she knows that I can see she is battling and that I am hearing her cry for help. We planned together to see whether we could better the situation. We decided to let her take her afternoon nap at home instead of at school, so that when she wakes up she is in her safe space. Within a week we had the old Mia back, going to school with a smile on her face.
Through this entire ordeal, Mia grew in leaps and bounds in her understanding of her emotions and how to work through them. Starting preschool is but the first of many journeys that Mia will embark upon in her life and I pray that we as a family have done our best in equipping her for her first mini-solo journey.
MommaMia Tip: There is no manual for your child’s individual needs, but be assured that you have what it takes to figure it out together. When your child is dealing with a difficult situation or major changes in his life, it might result in unprecedented behaviour. Apply the principles above as you teach your child about different emotions and guide him through the process of experiencing his feelings in a healthy way.