, Salem, MA

August 30, 2013

Reacting positively to back-to-school challenges

Dr. Kate's Parent Rap
Dr. Kate Roberts

---- — Children all around the country have returned to school this week after a short summer. Many are excited to see their friends and get back into their school routine. What’s a parent to do when school is not exactly what a child expected and he or she begins to complain? I know of one student who was fine with her assigned teacher until she heard another student say, “I had that teacher, and it was the worst year of my life!” This student came home and complained to her mother, “My friend says my teacher’s mean; I can’t be in that class!” It’s true that friends do influence a child’s thinking; however, parents influence it even more. How parents react to their child’s moments of challenge will set the tone for the school year. Here are some tips:

Be prepared. The parent who expects that the “all is great before school starts” attitude will last indefinitely is in for a big surprise. Don’t fool yourself; complaints will surface, be ready to react with a positive reframe; in other words, try to find validating, yet optimistic, responses to a child’s challenges.

Teacher assignment. When your child isn’t assigned the teacher of his choice, this is an opportunity for him to learn to adapt and be flexible.

Talk to your child about what it means to pre-judge someone. Ask him how he feels when people decide whether they like him based on what others think.

Remind him that he needs to learn to make his own judgments; you want him to be an independent thinker, and this is an opportunity to reinforce that.

Remind your child that his experiences at school do not depend on his teacher. Condoning negativity toward teachers now may backfire later when your child decides it’s OK to skip class in college because he doesn’t get along with the professor.

Remind him that he’s in charge of his thoughts, reactions and attitude and he has to manage positive and negative life challenges.

Praise your child for how he’s handled adverse or uncomfortable situations in the past with specific examples, “You know when you had that basketball coach that yelled at you, once you realized it was his way of pushing you, it felt OK. Try to keep an open mind about your teacher.”

Remind your child that it’s OK to be frustrated and that he’s not going like every teacher to the same degree, just like he doesn’t like every friend the same amount.

If you as his parent do not like your child’s assigned teacher, be a good actor. It’s unhelpful to bad-talk his teacher, and it will make it harder for him to connect with that teacher. Behind closed doors, in the dark, whisper in a private conversation with yourself, your partner or a friend that you don’t like the teacher and get it off your chest, then get over it. Said anywhere else, you may think your child won’t hear it, but he will.

Friendships. Many children can become overwhelmed with the visual reality of not having their close friends in their class, and seeing is believing. When his friends are hanging out with new classmates at lunch, he may react with feelings of rejection. Feeling overlooked can feel hurtful and, as a parent, it may upset you, as well. However, it’s adaptive to connect with the new kids in class, so gently reassure him that his friends are not trying to hurt his feelings.

Reassure him that classes change every year, and in the past, he’s dealt with it, and he will this year, as well.

If your child knows his closest friends are not in his classes, talk to him about how this feels and remind him it’s OK to be disappointed; however, he will have chances to make new friends in class and at other out-of-school activities.

Parents, you don’t decide who your child’s teachers are or which friends are his classes. You do, however, choose how you react when things don’t go the way you and your child had hoped. This is an opportunity for you to be the true hero. If a parent can accept the harsh reality of a child’s disappointment, the child is significantly more resilient in accepting disappointments, as well.

I am not asking you not to feel a certain way, but I am strongly urging you to appear neutral to positive regardless of the circumstances. Ways to do this:

Acknowledge your child’s disappointments and empathize with him that it can be difficult when things don’t work out as planned.

Spend time reframing the reality to emphasize the positives; in other words, look for and state the silver lining. If you make a potentially negative situation into something acceptable and even positive, your child will, too.


Dr. Kate Roberts is a psychologist and parent coach on the North Shore. Questions can be directed to, or