Parent power key to soothing back-to-school anxiety

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Local family therapist said parents are first in line to promote the positive values of education to their children; teachers are the natural transition as a figure of authority and trust.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

The first of September heralds many things: cooler evenings, Monday night football, and, for some, the dreaded anticipation of back to school. Beyond a lingering reluctance to end carefree summer days, the prospect of classes can provoke adolescent anxieties at a time when some parents may just be happy to see their children off the couch and out of the house again.

Malibu resident Susan Stiffelman is a marriage and family therapist who specializes in parenting and child issues. She believes encouraging a child to develop his or her “authentic self” by pursuing what he or she is passionate about is the key to developing confident children who rise to education.

“Think about it,” Stiffelman said. “In traditional schooling, we raise our kids to excel in only limited areas-logic/math or linguistically-when their personal genius or excellence may lie in something else, say body kinesthetic or visual-spatial or musical. We judge their success by how they perform to our standards. And then, when they’re in their 40s and able to say ‘I don’t care what other people think,’ they have mid-life crises and become artists or whatever.”

Stiffelman holds regular parenting workshops through her practice because she believes parents are first in line in developing a child who realizes the benefits of and takes advantage of a school experience.

“The three pillars of security a parent provides for his child is simple attachment, celebrating the child he has and modeling spirituality,” she said. “With a child really rooted to you, there’s a loyalty and sense of intimacy that acts like a constant Northern Star.”

In short, the parent provides the model.

The trick, she said, is for teachers to be a natural transition as a figure of authority and trust. “Civilizations who raise their children in a tribal fashion, with teachers and aunties helping, have the strongest social bonds and best-held traditions in human history. If a trusted teacher works with a kid’s particular passions, that kid will jump through hoops for him.”

Parents can encourage that fundamental attachment as an extension of the loyalty and support they get at home. “Match-make a good relationship between your kid and his teacher,” Stiffelman advises.

But what if you have a teenager who ends up frustrated because he put off a term paper until the night before it’s due.

“Well, you’re still the parent. You have to be willing for your kids to not like you,” Stiffelman said. “But if you start with showing them a commitment to staying on their side, you’ll get more cooperation. Instead of berating the kid for being so irresponsible, you’ll get more by saying, ‘How can I help you come up with a plan to do the work?’ They’ll respond to empathy.”

Stiffelman has done a great deal of research into children diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, or ADD, and the educational challenges it brings. She said it is true that video and computer games have bred a generation of children who are nonreaders, making it difficult to study.

“So we diagnose a lot of ADD,” she said. “And it is difficult for kids to sit for 50 minutes and concentrate.”

However, she objects to the label “disorder.” Many ADD diagnoses are simply a result of “learning style incompatibility with their teacher,” Stiffelman said, and might require a flexible approach to a teaching model.

In one published treatise on ADD, Stiffelman wrote: “Many children are kinesthetic, hands-on learners, and when they’re taught in a more project-based way, or with a variety of avenues for taking in information, they do very well and their ‘ADD-ish’ behavior fades away entirely.”

In other words, a child might learn more about the basics of DNA by building a double-helix model himself rather than by reading a textbook.

For their part, parents must work from a place of understanding, Stiffelman said. “With ADD, your attention is in charge of you. Parents must treat ‘paying attention’ as a skill to be learned just as much as algebra,” she said.

Joel Leifer, a Los Angeles based forensic psychologist and who has a master’s in child psychology, agrees that parents hold the keys to soothing a child’s anxieties over school. “Adolescent kids are flush with hormones that both challenge and frighten them. These labile emotions make for anxious individuals,” he said.

The treatment lies in total parental involvement, Leifer said. “Be receptive, spend time, ask, spend more time, think, express care,” he said. “Spend more time, call, text, ask which classes they love and hate in school. Your child will tell you and you can help them cope when you have answers.”

Stiffelman said she believes parents can’t be too involved with every aspect of school-aged children’s routines. “Who does your child have lunch with at school? That will tell you a lot,” she said.

And, finally, she counsels parents to trust their intuition. “I sometimes ask parents to get real quiet and ask themselves, ‘What does my child really need without concern of what’s realistic or appropriate?’ The answer might not always be convenient,” Stiffelman said, “But I usually find that most parents have that answer.”