Back to school, back to anxiety

It’s that time of year again. Yes, it’s exciting to enter a new year at school, meet new friends, learn new things. But many back-to-school experiences are infused with anxiety — both for students and their parents.

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Student anxiety

Students of all ages are nervous as well as excited, whether they’re in elementary, middle, high school, college or beyond. Their questions vary on similar themes: will I get a “good” teacher? How will I find something I like to do and people I like to do it with? How can I make good grades without working too hard?

For students moving away to college, the thrill of living on their own is often matched by a latent fear of whether they’ll be happy. Whether they will find people who accept them for who they are, or whether they should “try on” new personalities in order to fit in.

Even going back to college after a summer away brings worries: will I still like my friends from last year? Will they like me? What am I going to major in? How am I going to juggle all my responsibilities?

Parents are anxious for our kids

We parents may try to hide our anxiety, but it runs high. We’re worried about how our younger children are going to choose friends, make good grades, excel at sports, get their homework done. Anxiety builds as they start high school. We fear that even tiny missteps will limit their options for college.

Clearing the college hurdle brings on new worries. As parents of college students, we have to content ourselves with what our kids choose to tell us. Even if we had tried to guide kids’ choices in the past, they’re out of our reach now.

We worry about ourselves, too

Those are the worries we have for our kids. What about the anxiety we feel for ourselves? For example, how can I volunteer at my child’s school while still leaving time for my job or other commitments? Are the other parents going to accept me as one of them? Now that my kids have moved on to college, what should I do? Should I change jobs, start working again, go back to school, take up a new interest? How will my spouse and I get along with each other, now that the kids have left home? How can I meet new friends, now that the interactions with parents I used to see at school or sports are more random?

Relationship anxiety

So we worry about our relationships with other adults, and also about how we will relate to our children who are becoming adults. But deep down, both parents and students want to know the same things:

  • How do I separate?
  • How do I stay connected?

 

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Letting go of anxiety

Vague advice for anxious parents or kids like, “Just chill out!” may be well meant, but it’s not particularly helpful. Of course we know that worrying doesn’t do any good! Various religious traditions (not to mention common sense) admonish us to let go of anxiety. For example, Jesus says in his Sermon on the Mount: “Which one of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?(Matthew 6:27 ESV)

For those of us who are prone to anxiety, however, it’s not so easy. As a near-professional worrier myself, I struggle with letting go. But my own experience suggests starting small can help. For example:

  • Commit time to take a “worry break.” Go for a walk or sit outside and breathe slowly. Get a pedicure or massage. See if you can think about something else for thirty minutes, maybe even an hour. Block the time out on your calendar.
  • Let go of one thing: Figure out something you’re worried about that logically, you know you can’t control. Don’t try to let go of all worries at once — just this one.
  • Turn the camera around: notice what’s going on in the lives of people you encounter every day. The cashier, receptionist, school janitor, or homeless person. Sometimes the simple act of focusing on another’s problems, even briefly, can give you perspective on your own concerns.

Letting go of anxiety, even temporarily, is something we can train ourselves to do. Not unlike learning to hit a slice serve or sink a four-foot putt, this training requires us to practice and build on small successes. But even little improvements will start to add up.

OK, it’s time for me to walk my dog. Likewise, go on your own “worry break!”

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Images licensed under CC BY via Flickr: Mari Z., T. Goskar, P. Nouhailler

Patrick Nouhaill

 

Last first day of school

First day of school photo

Yesterday I took my last “first day of school” photo. I have thirty-nine such photos, thirteen of each child. I’ve stashed them in various places around my house or on the hard drive of my computer. But yesterday’s was the last one. The final picture I would take of my child on his or her way to another year — a year of growing up, of learning in the classroom, of learning about himself.

 

 

With my last one leaving home next year, I will have completed my task of raising my children. It seems as though this is all I’ve ever done, all I was ever meant to do. At the same time, it also seems they were here for just an instant.

It’s strange to reflect that my greatest achievement is essentially done. I’m 50 years old, and I’m done.

I don’t feel “done.” As their first-grade teacher had our older kids chant, “Cakes are done, pies are done, people are finished.” I don’t feel “finished” either, though.

 

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It’s my last SAT too, you know

Today my last child takes his last SAT. He took it earlier this year, and conventional wisdom suggests taking it a second time can help you improve your scores, but you need to be careful about giving the appearance on your college applications that you’ve taken it “too many” times.

Meaning you have to guard against looking as though you’re spending time on marginal score improvement when you could be doing something more worthwhile. You know, like applying your knowledge of computer programming to organize carpools in your town that would save individuals gas money, help people get to know their neighbors, and reduce CO2 emissions — thus in your own small way, help save to our planet.

But seriously, I got up early this morning to prepare one of my son’s favorite breakfasts — fried eggs, bacon and chocolate chip coffee cake I had baked yesterday. Earlier in the week I had purchased a box of Ticonderoga #2 pencils for what would probably be the last time. When I woke up, I offered a prayer that all would go well for him today — and I thought about the old saying that, as long as there are exams, there will be prayer in schools. But mainly, I reflected on the fact that this was “my” last SAT.

Our family has acquired a lot of logistical knowledge about preparing for and taking the SAT. Based on the experiences of three children, we now try to avoid Gunn High School for standardized tests due to the long wait for a left turn from the route we take from our house, its single driveway that backs up easily when everyone arrives at once, and overall, Gunn’s poor parking situation.  Palo Alto High School functions better on these factors, in my kids’ opinion — plus it is located close to excellent après-test restaurants for lunch. However, the last time Micah went there, his test was canceled due to someone setting off the fire alarm — the culprits were never found, but it was assumed to be  a senior prank. Today he went to his favorite location, Los Altos High School. Although a bit farther away from our house, LAHS has easy parking, even some covered spaces, and it’s small enough that they take less time to organize students into classrooms. Thus they tend to start (and finish) their tests on time.

But enough about my children and their SATs — back to me.

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Back to September

Driving home after dropping my son at school last week, I stopped to let five girls on rollerblades cross the street.  With bike helmets and new backpacks, they joined other kids and parents making their way on foot, bike or stroller towards the elementary school near our house.  A mom with a yellow Lab jogged behind the pink and purple phalanx of girls, keeping an eye on their wobbly but excited progress.Even though our kids are past elementary age, I still love the first days of school in our neighborhood, when parents and kids stream towards their classrooms, clog the streets with parked cars, and make “happy noises” I can hear far down the street.

The elementary school students may be the ones who come to mind first when we think of “back to school,” but transitions are happening at every age.  Friends were telling me about their son’s first week at middle school, and how he had been both happy and a little nervous to move from class to class instead of staying in the same room all day long.  And, to their surprise, how all of a sudden he was coming home talking about girls . . . .  Where had their little boy gone?

It’s a question we parents keep asking ourselves, especially once our children grow up and move towards adulthood.  I mean, my oldest is a junior in college.  He’s an RA, counseling freshmen on how to adjust to life in the dorms, providing a mature influence and disciplinary oversight.  But in my mind, I still see him on his green bicycle, proud to ride off to sixth grade by himself.  My daughter, a college sophomore, tells me she’s going to try a different class because a professor may be knowledgeable but isn’t engaging.  But I still recall how petrified she was to find out she was assigned to the strictest (and most challenging) teacher for the third grade at her school.  Her initial fear subsided into anticipation, as she made a bead bracelet that spelled out the teacher’s name.  Go figure.

My youngest still lives at home but is about to get his driver’s license.  I should be happy to be “free” of shuttling kids around after so many years, but I wonder if I’ll ever again have chances to converse with my children the way I’ve had when they were required to be in the car with me.

The thing is, all our kids all doing exactly what they’re supposed to do – grow up and separate from us.  And even those of us who aren’t parents, or whose kids are “all grown up,” remember what this time of year was like for ourselves: the anticipation of something new, hope for something good, fear of the unknown.

So even if our lives are not governed by the academic calendar, post Labor Day is a great time to start fresh.  The days are getting shorter, but there is still the promise of an Indian summer ahead.  Now that kids are settled into school, some adults  take advantage of cheaper and less crowded vacation destinations.  Others feel we can finally get organized after traveling or feeling scattered during the summer months.  For some, like Rita Konig of the WSJ, it may mean sprucing up our desks.  For me, it’s meant getting back to my workout routine, something that’s proving torturous but necessary.  I’m also signing up for some classes, not a full load, but a couple of things to do for myself, to put my brain into gear.

So whether you have kids or not, find something to do that rejuvenates yourself this month, gives you a new routine or a new way of looking at your old routine.  It may be a vacation without the summer hordes, or a new set of pens for your desk.  Whatever you choose, though, be on the lookout for pink and purple rollerbladers – you might even want to join them!

 

Now they’re gone.

We took them to the airport early yesterday morning, each on a flight to the East Coast but leaving within twenty minutes of the other one.  He’s going back for sophomore year, and she’s doing a freshman backpacking trip before orientation starts next weekend.  The shopping’s done, the bags are packed.  What Sarah didn’t take, my husband and I will carry when we go out help her check into her dorm.

We got back home at 6:30 a.m.  Our favorite breakfast café wasn’t open yet, so we went to Peet’s and drank coffee for half an hour before going to eat scrambled eggs.  Did you ever wonder why, when you arrive with friends at 8:30 or 9:00, all the bigger tables are taken by sole occupants?  Now I know it’s because people set up camp between 7:00 and 7:30, and then they stay all morning.  One woman brought in a briefcase and some shopping bags in a stroller (no baby in sight, however).  She then proceeded to move a table to make give herself and her stroller more room.  After ordering, she sat down and then got up, sat down, got up, circling the restaurant several times until she had collected extra napkins and arranged everything in her area just-so.  Another regular customer came in and, since all the large tables were taken, he had to settle for a two-top.   He drank his coffee while rocking and humming to the tunes in his portable CD player, sheet music spread out in front of him.  I began to wonder if we were really in the suburbs after all.
But that was a momentary distraction.  When I came back to the house, there was only my youngest child, his dad and me.  And the dog, of course, who wanted his morning kibble.  But this is it, the “new normal,” a household of three.  Seems empty, quiet.

I wasn’t sure I felt like making dinner that evening.  [Read more…]