One of my favorite quotes is by mindfulness expert and author Jon Kabat-Zinn: “You cannot stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” This simple quote is a reminder to me that change and challenges are inevitable, yet we have control and choice in how we respond to them. Do we avoid those challenges and stay out of the water completely? Do we get overwhelmed by them? Or do we choose to notice the waves coming, ride the waves, and even learn to master and enjoy them? Learning to surf is about being aware of – not alarmed by – change and challenges, and engaging positively in them to promote feelings of competence, confidence, and joy.
As the new school year begins, it is a time of nerves and excitement for kids (and for parents too!). Like other transition periods, there is an initial time of settling in, feeling excited and optimistic, and setting goals for the future. After this “honeymoon phase” there usually will come some challenges. The waters start to get choppy. Homework piles up, bigger papers and projects get assigned, and peer conflicts start brewing. The question becomes, who will get overwhelmed by the waves, and who will learn to surf?
Here are some useful strategies for talking about change and challenges with kids, in a way that encourages surfing not sinking:
1. Plan ahead. Being proactive is key. Most of the time, we can see the waves coming before they hit us. Anticipating challenges and planning for them is easier and feels better than trying to recover after getting overwhelmed. Procrastination adds stress and creates a cycle of anxiety. Look at a planner with your kids, or encourage your older teenagers to do this on their own. For children with executive functioning challenges, this process is much more difficult- make sure to provide support in breaking down bigger assignments into smaller tasks and block out time for getting those tasks completed.
2. Acknowledge feelings. Our instinct might be to jump in or rescue our kids when a big wave is coming- yet often the validation of their feelings is the best thing we can do. The simple recognition of feelings, the offering of empathy and acknowledgment of someone else’s felt experience, can be incredibly helpful in the face of challenges. If an assignment is causing anxiety, try to just be present and let your child now that you see that they are stressed and that they’re trying really hard. When we feel understood and seen, it builds our internal sense of security and our confidence that we can get through something difficult- these are the feelings we want to build in our children, and we do so by empathizing.
3. Be curious. Once you’ve validated feelings, sometimes there is still problem-solving to do. I often coach parents to “wonder” with their kids rather than advise them. When you see a wave coming, brainstorm with them about how they’ll get past it. Acknowledge that it is scary, then strategize. Ask them what they think of the challenge, how much time they think they’ll need to spend on it, what supports or resources they might need, etc. If they have a big test on monday, then on friday ask “I wonder how much time you need to study this weekend?” Talking through solutions together in a way that respects your child’s ideas and ability to problem-solve builds feelings of competence and autonomy.
4. Seek outside supports when needed. Sometimes we need expert help to get through a tough situation. Getting hit by waves over and over again might cause burnout or learned helplessness rather than building resilience. Part of ‘learning to surf’ is recognizing when it’s time to ask for help, whether that is tutoring, counseling, coaching, or perhaps medication. If you’re not sure if it’s time to seek out child therapy, start by talking with their school counselor. I tell people that you should gauge when to go into therapy the same way that you might decide to see a doctor for a physical issue: based on symptom severity and longevity, and level of interference with functioning.
5. Celebrate successes. Positive reinforcement is so important in any relationship, but particularly with our kids. In family therapy, I challenge parents to aim for a 5:1 ratio of positive to critical comments (adapted from Dr. John Gottman’s “magic ratio” for healthy relationships). Those 5 positives don’t have to be focused on positive outcomes; drawing attention to positive intentions and efforts is just as important. When a big wave comes, we can give positive reinforcement in so many places- for an optimistic outlook, for asking for help when needed, for trying hard, for thoughtfully taking risks, and for successfully ‘surfing the wave.’
So as the school year gets underway and the homework starts to pick up, start communicating sooner rather than later with your kids about the challenges that will come this school year. Look ahead and predict waves, acknowledge when those waves look scary, strategize together about how to tackle them, get help if it’s too much to navigate on your own, and celebrate when you see your child surfing successfully!