May 21, 2014
It’s that time of year again. The weather is warmer, the flowers have bloomed, and the sun sets later in the evening. It’s the time when children begin to anticipate the end of the school year – or perhaps they have already finished the year. It should be the height of excitement. So… why are they so moody?
It’s easy to comprehend why a graduating 18 year-old might feel a swirling mix of emotions. Making the transition to the next phase can be daunting, and melancholy about leaving long-time friends is understandable. We can even grasp why it might be difficult to leave middle school or junior high and anticipate starting high school – especially as the pressure about college admissions is seeping down to younger and younger teens. And maybe, we can fathom how a student could be nervous about leaving a beloved elementary school, as they worry about changing classrooms or managing the increased demands of middle school. But, what could possibly explain the roller coaster of emotions of a kindergarten student anticipating first grade, or even, a preschooler going to kindergarten? Clearly, there must be more to it than meets the eye!
It may be hard to appreciate, but even preschoolers sense that these “graduations” are big deals. Teachers may begin cautioning students as early as January that “Next year, you’ll be expected to do…” or “This is ok for now, but your teacher next year won’t accept…” Scary words indeed. Rather the interpreting the message as: “We expect you to rise to the occasion and know you’ll be capable of doing so”, students may hear: “The stakes are being raised, and you won’t be able to meet expectations.” For a four year-old, the thought might translate as: “I’m supposed to act like a big kid, but I don’t feel like one.” And hence, the moods or the meltdowns happen. It’s the child’s way, at any age, of saying: “I don’t want to be in a place where I won’t be ok, I want to stay in this familiar, comfortable place where I am.”
The key for parents is to help their children voice any apprehensions about growing up and about the stage to come. While we may know that such anxieties are felt by all of us at one time or another, our children may think it’s just them. For younger children, we can give them a more realistic sense of the scope of the actual changes that await them and help them generate ideas for how to face these changes. It can be as simple as walking through a new school before the year starts or talking to a peer who is a year ahead. Children need to know that they are competent and capable of handling the next step.
Most of all, children need to understand the idea that they won’t be going from childhood to independence in one step or in one year. Explaining the changes as incremental (in age-appropriate terms) can be invaluable. Otherwise, they can feel like the rug is going to be pulled out from under them. Older children can be reminded that there really wasn’t a big change from the last day of being eight years old to the first day of being nine. In fact, children who are sensitive to these transition times can anticipate birthdays with some degree of apprehension for precisely this reason. They think that the transition will be night and day and that they will go from being little to being big in an all-or-nothing way.
The end of the year is an exciting time. Still, children often need help understanding and articulating the mixed feelings they may have about this time of change. And, after all, who among us still can’t relate to that?
Posted by Elinor Bashe, Psy.D.