By Stacey Meadows, LCSW-C
Parenting is one of the hardest jobs that we may choose to take on. While there can be rewards of tremendous joy and love that blossoms within this role, we are also charged with a seemingly impossible task of keeping our little ones safe and healthy in an increasingly complex world.
Children today face many of the same challenges that we, ourselves, faced growing up – negotiating friendships, pressures and expectations related to school, fights with siblings, struggles to find our own identity while staying connected to our roots, and so on. In the bigger picture, our world continues to evolve, and as such our children may also face challenges that were foreign to us as kids, such as understanding how to engage in the internet at an early age, an increased sense of insecurity as communities become more transient, and socio-political volatility domestic and abroad that seems to threaten our sense of safety in communities small and large.
Our elementary school students are often less consciously in tune with all of these challenges. They walk the line between the naive babies we dropped off to pre-school and the sassy and increasingly worldly middle schoolers that they will soon become. In this age, children often struggle with classic childhood conflicts like separation anxiety, learning to learn and study, to be patient, learning to be part of a group and to negotiate conflict. Our elementary schoolers often have vivid imaginations, and wild carefree play, and they use these tools to process and understand the world around them.
So, what do we do as parents, when we notice that our child’s experience of this world is causing them distress? How do we know when enough is enough, and something needs to be done in order to protect and keep them socially and emotionally healthy? How do we know whether therapy might be beneficial?
Unfortunately, we all know that children do not come with instruction manuals, and that there is no “one size fits all” approach to parenting. Each child is different; each child has a unique personality, with unique strengths and coping skills. The single most effective tool that YOU as a parent have, is knowing your child better than anyone else in this world. You will be the first to notice if their personality or mood changes significantly, if their eating or sleeping habits change, if their engagement and closeness with you or others change. You have the authority to communicate with their teachers – to know how (or whether) these things may be observed at school.
Certainly, a normal degree of challenge can be expected as we experience big changes in our lives, like the transition to elementary school. However, for most children adjustment to life changes like this are relatively minor (increased worry or separation anxiety are common at this age) and will be most difficult during the first few weeks. For most children, these symptoms can generally be expected to subside in the follow 6-8 weeks. Parent and school support around these issues is tremendously valuable in identifying challenges that kids are facing and helping them to adjust in healthy ways.
If you, however, notice that these changes are significant, do not subside within a couple of months of significant transitions, or if the changes appear without any identifiable trigger and do not lessen in a similar timeframe, you may want to consider the possibility of having them evaluated by a mental health professional. A therapist can, at the very least, help you to assess whether your child could benefit from treatment, and at best, can support your family and your child in experiencing symptom improvements.
Stacey Meadows, LCSW-C, is Associate Senior Manager of
Therapy Services at Jewish Community Services
JCS is a comprehensive human services organization providing a broad range of services that meet the diverse, multi-dimensional needs of individuals and families throughout Central Maryland. To learn more, visit jcsbalt.org or call 410-466-9200.