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When Back-to-School Triggers Difficult Emotions

Your child used to begin the school year with such hope — but now feels doses of apprehension, fear, self-doubt, and boredom. These emotions are big, and important to recognize as not only valid but important. Here, learn how to balance the negative with the positive, and make school fun again.

Many of my pediatric patients did not want to go back to school this Fall. For one, they were reluctant to leave the blissful moments of summer behind, and I couldn’t blame them. But what was heartbreaking to hear, particularly as a mom, was the dread they felt over returning to the classroom and managing the difficult emotions that arise when you can’t focus or sit still for an extended period of time: frustration, boredom, anxiety, and a general sense that something is “wrong” with you.

Parental instincts tell us to shield our children from everything that hurts. We can’t stand to see them suffer or feel bad about themselves. Yet we know that, for kids with ADHD, school presents an emotional minefield. With that in mind, here a few strategies for helping your child cope with the emotional challenges of navigating school with  attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD):

1. Show your child that emotions aren’t inherently “bad.”

A child with ADHD who is prone to outbursts has likely internalized the message that BIG emotions are a pathway to trouble. As a result, they try to avoid “bad” emotions that are, in reality, unavoidable. Rather than trying (and probably failing) to suppress their emotions, your child can change their relationship to them.

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The next time they’re upset, ask them what’s happening in their body: Is their heart beating fast? Are they breathing hard? Is their face hot? This simple act of checking in with their body can create some distance between the immediate experience of their feelings and the disruptive behavior that might ensue.

2. Remind your child that they have a gift.

Kids with ADHD struggle in school more than their neurotypical peers. Your child intuitively understands this, and you shouldn’t try to pretend otherwise. When your kid laments the fact that their classmates don’t seem to have the same issues, you should validate their feelings. But don’t stop there. Remind them of the areas in which they shine. Artistic gifts and sports skills may not help them pass a math test, but these strengths set them apart from their peers. Further, the skills they’re learning now — namely resilience and self-awareness — will benefit them later in life. After all, lots of famous people struggled in school and went on to lead successful, fascinating lives.

3. Help your child find their joy.

We all need a passion — that one special thing that grabs your attention and makes you feel most like yourself. It could be years before your child discovers their passion, but in the meantime you can help them find something they really enjoy. Maybe it’s playing the flute, or karate, or planting vegetables.

If your child’s “joy” overlaps with an activity at school, great! If not, don’t sweat it. The goal here is to encourage them to develop their unique interests and discover their innate capabilities. This process will bolster their self-esteem and make it easier to deal with the inevitable disappointments and frustrations that occur at school.

[Free Guide to Activities and Sports for Kids with ADHD]

4. Remember that school isn’t everything.

When we start school as kids, we begin a lifelong series of aptitude tests. From the very first day, we are evaluated based on intellect, sociability, creativity, and other measures. We learn that success and failure can be quantified. We begin to judge ourselves based on other people’s standards. What can easily get lost amidst the pressure to conform and excel is this: school, like work, isn’t everything.

So much of life happens outside the classroom. Don’t lose sight of that. Your child may have a hard time staying on task or turning in their homework on time, but that doesn’t mean they’re not a wonderful son or daughter, sibling, and friend.

[Free Webinar: Helping Children with ADHD Overcome Failure, Fear, and Disappointment]