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Starting Primary School can be an Emotional Rollercoaster

By Sarah Liebetrau - 6th March 2012

It’s several weeks into the school year and my five-year-old son is experiencing his share of ups and downs adjusting to life at ‘big school’.

The highs (for both of us) include waving me happily off each morning, and the beautiful hug he gives his sister every afternoon on their reunion at the school gates.  Seeing my independent, confident, happy little boy embrace this new stage of his life fills me with maternal pride. Sage comments such as “last year I liked preschool but now I really belong in big school” cannot fail to bring a smile to my lips. He talks animatedly about the new friends he is making, his “best friend at school” – his Year 6 buddy – and the fun and challenging things he is doing in the classroom.

But then there are the difficult moments. Starting primary school - such a big life change, has also come with its fair share of big emotions for my sensitive boy. After trying so hard to concentrate and control his impulses all day, those emotions often came home looking for an outlet. Any small thing has the potential to set him off -  from running out of his favourite snack to losing a texta lid - and from this small inconvenience a large meltdown often ensues. For a while I was at a loss about how to handle this. I wanted to try and understand where he was coming from but also be firm about expected appropriate behaviour – slamming the door and telling me he hates me were dealbreakers. I also wondered what I could do to  prevent the meltdowns before they happened, but in some ways it seemed they were inevitable – he was looking for a reason to just blow off steam. I tried talking to him, explaining, ignoring, comforting – nothing seemed to be working.

After one particularly arduous session of him shouting at me while I was trying to cook dinner, I shouted back at him in frustration, which had sent him running to his room and left me feeling awful.

On another day, after sending him to his room to calm down for the third time in as many days, he implored me not to leave him there. “This is not teaching me anything!” he shouted, “I don’t want you to leave me here alone!” I sighed and asked “Okay, what is going to help you right now? What do you need? Do you need a cuddle?” He cried and said yes, so I sat on the bed and cuddled my big boy (who is really not so very big) while he sobbed his little heart out for several minutes.

All the tensions of the day came flooding out with his tears. When he had calmed down a bit, I focused on empathy - I spoke to him gently and said that I know he is working very hard each day to sit still in class and concentrate on what the teacher is saying, and I know that takes a lot of effort. I told him it’s okay to be angry, and it’s okay to cry, but it’s not okay to slam doors and to say you hate me. His response: “I don’t really hate you mum I’m just saying that so you will know that I am angry.”  I told him I know he doesn’t hate me and I also know that he is angry - he doesn’t need to shout and scream for me to understand that. That’s when he said something that really clicked for me. “But when I’m talking to you, you are doing other things and not listening properly and so I have to scream and shout.” This is when I realised that, often when he comes home from school, I will be listening to him while I am attending to my three year old, getting dinner started, and myriad other activities. But from my son's point of view, if I am not giving him my full attention I am not listening at all, and so a small frustration takes on huge proportions.

What I think he was telling me is that after a full day at school he needs my undivided attention for a certain length of time to regain his equilibrium. I am sure the other factors – tiredness, learning how to control his impulses – still apply, but since that discussion I have made a concerted effort to just sit with him for 15 minutes when we get home, and listen, cuddle or play. Everything else has to wait. So far it seems to be making a difference and Mr 5 seems to be regulating his emotions much more easily. It was by listening to my five-year-old that I was reminded of the simple truth that small changes can make a big impact.

image freedigitalphotos.net

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