by on AUGUST 30, 2011
You’ve heard all about getting dialed back to a reasonable bedtime, packing the lunch or backpack the night before, setting up a work station with all the right doo-dads neatly organized. Good advice indeed for student success.
Now, for success in life as well as school, here are my Top Ten Tips for mindfully managing back-to-school stress:
1. STOP, RELAX, & THINK! Too often were’ running around mindlessly multitasking, feeling like we “have to” do this or that or the other thing. And the other thing always seems to pop up out of nowhere to bite us in the butt. The best way to hurry up and get where you want to go, is to STOP and slow down! Otherwise, you may be hurrying in the wrong direction.
2. Regain Perspective. Rather than running around reflexively reacting, slow down to reflectively respond instead. Zoom out and take a “God’s eye view” to look at your life or your day. What’s working well and what isn’t? And why? What goals for this school year (or day) really matter the most? And why?
3. Reset Your Priorities. When you get refocused on your big “Why’s”, it helps to put all the little stuff that we’re not supposed to sweat about back into perspective. Then we can zoom in to refocus on what really matters. Sure, there are the practical realities of making it to the bus on time, and getting the homework done, and hopefully learning something new each day, and being able to productively “show what you know” on tests and papers and such.
Yet in our hearts, we know that what matters most is HOW we achieve those practical goals – with loving-kindness and patience and laughter, or tense, impulsive frustration and fretting. It really is about the journey, not the destination. That’s what your child really needs to learn, perhaps – how to go about meeting his/her daily responsibilities with joy, rather than anxiety or anger. Which are you modeling? Which are you practicing? That’s what your children will remember about their childhood.
Don’t be shy about this. Post little reminder notes, sayings, inspirational quotes, pictures, art, etc. around your home, your desk, your refrigerator, your car dashboard. Keep the good stuff front and center – for you and your kids.
4. Recharge Your Batteries. If you’re running on empty, you can’t give your child your best self – let alone you deserve to enjoy your best self yourself! So give yourself a minute, just one minute right now, to reflect on something.
Think of a time recently when you were really happy. What were you doing, where were you, whom were you with? Recall an experience when you felt alive, energized, joyful. Simply put, what are some things that you enjoy doing? What brings you energy? Excites or calms you? What’s fun for you? Now, would you like more of that in your life?
Okay, so do more of that. YES, you can! There are 32 half-hour segments in your waking day. At least ONE of them can be for your pure unadulterated enjoyment – every single day! I promise, the rest of the world will still survive if it only gets the other 31/32 parts of you. If you’re truly committed to your top priorities (see 3 above), then you’ll need to recharge your batteries, refuel your gas tank, so you can actually reach your destination. It’s really not optional – though as crazy, unconscious, martyring parents, we keep thinking it is.
And remember, if you’re suffering, you’re children are suffering.
So, go for that walk DAILY. Pray. Watch your favorite TV show. Have lunch with that friend. Read inspirational stories or passages. Run, bike, or play volleyball. Have people that make you laugh over for dinner or dessert or a drink. Get that back rub or bubble bath. Take a half hour each night to snuggle under blankets with your child, eating popcorn, reading a book, or thumb wrestling. Hug your partner, often. Whatever does it for you. Recharge.
Healthy mindfulness practice is about having brief periods of awareness repeated many times. It’s not about taking some big chunk of time or meeting some grand goal or striving to be happy or healthy. It’s about appreciating the gift of what is, in the present moment.
Be more present to the moments that bring you joy. And insert them, bit by bit, into your daily life.
5. Recharge Your Child’s Batteries. Ditto for your kids. Structure it, guide it, see to it. Don’t smother it or force it. Give your child the space to have what nourishes them, perhaps with you, perhaps without. But be aware, and facilitate it. What re-energizes your child? What soothes your child? Make sure it’s a conscious part of the daily diet of family life.
6. Listen Carefully, Speak Clearly. Communication skills are fundamental to healthy, happy relationships. And having close, supportive relationships is the single biggest predictor of well-being at any stage of life. So nurture your relationship with your child, especially through the stressful transitions of back-to-school or otherwise, with mindful communications.
Listen with an open mind. Don’t just be waiting your turn to get YOUR point across. As Steven Covey says, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Are you really listening, not just to your child’s words, but to the thoughts and feelings behind those words? Are you understanding what feelings, needs, struggles, desires your child is trying to express? Acknowledgement and acceptance are critical, always. Approval is another matter. You’ll want to consciously decide if you approve of what your child is saying or doing, and then act accordingly.
Speak with an open heart. Be clear in your heart, what do you really care about in this situation? What value or principle do you want your child to learn from you in this moment? Get clear on that, then state it clearly and compassionately. Say what you mean, mean what you say, and don’t say it meanly.
7. Work on Purpose. Other critical life skills for your child include being creative, industrious, responsible, persistent. To be able to work through difficulties without giving up. To work towards a goal, even in the midst of frustrations and distractions, and achieve it. To sustain attention and effort to a task, to persevere even when you don’t want to, to produce meaningful output through thoughtful input. To gain mastery and competence and confidence. These are important paths to a life well-lived. And a nice by-product is they get you good grades in school, too.
So make clear to your child, these too are priorities. Without nagging or perpetually complaining about the black cloud of homework or chores hanging overhead, get to it. Schedule “classes” at home just like they do at school. Or schedule homework or chore “appointments”, just like you do for doctors or music lessons or anything else. Schedule time-limited (30, 45, 60 minutes) appointments into your calendar, 5-6 days a week. Then get your child to show up at the appointed hour, and focus on that thing for that time. Period. No discussions or worrying about it before or afterwards. Just do it in that space at that time. Now is our time to work, just like now is our time to sleep, or now is our time to eat. It’s planned and purposeful.
Preview with your child specifically what work he/she needs to do. Briefly create a game plan for how they’ll do it, and make sure the materials or tools are there to succeed. Be clear on the time expectations. You will “collect the papers” or “end the appointment” or “inspect the job” at a specific time. Set a timer or set an alarm on your watch or cell phone to cue you and/or your child. Encourage your child to do the best they can in that allotted time (just like they do when taking a test at school). Expect that they can and will give their full engagement to this task at this time. Remove any distractions, especially extraneous electronic ones. Prime the pump by starting the child on the task, then fade away while remaining available if your child has any questions or needs any assistance. Do random spot checks and provide positive, encouraging redirections. Give a 5-10 minute warning before the end of the period. At the end of the period, come in, briefly review and close. Now let it go until the next scheduled appointment. Set your child, and yourself, free!
8. Hang out and Play. When looking at the weekly schedule, when looking at the hours left in the day, be sure to schedule some unscheduled time in there. Don’t just let it happen by default, with unconscious “zombie screen time” sucking the hours away, and then awakening in a stupor at the end of the evening to “hey, what just happened, where did the time go?” Rather, consciously insert “free play” or “down time” into your family life.
And pay attention to it. Hanging out time can be the most sacred time you can have. It’s the space between the notes that makes the music sweet. And this is the space where you and your child can really grow together. This is when and where most children – especially teens – reveal themselves the most. It’s where you get to see the person your child is becoming. It can be unstructured – just literally sitting around, maybe watching TV or listening to music or witnessing a storm blow through. It can be specified play time – as in, “Now we’re gonna have play time, what do you want to play?”
Card games, board games, video games, puzzles, charades, storytelling, make-believe, coloring, arts-and-crafts, sing-alongs, building forts or rube goldberg machines (google it!), playing catch in the back yard, sitting around a campfire, lingering at the table after dinner, or snuggling under the covers again. The possibilities are endless. It can even be in the mundane moments of the day – while washing dishes or folding laundry or walking the dog or driving to the store together.
The key is, pay attention – not to your next “to do” item, but to the beauty of the moment, of just being with your kids.
9. Be Thankful. No matter what you do, some days the tensions and frustrations of the school day/week/year will get to you – or to your child. You’ll feel overwhelmed and anxious. You’ll be impatiently, impulsively angry at the world, and you’ll snap. Go ahead, allow yourself that moment of frustration and self-doubt – of “why me?” or “damn you kid/parent/teacher/coach/God/whatever!” Then let it go, and remember something else.
Remember how fortunate you are to have these problems. Remember how blessed you are to have this child, this parent, this spouse, this life – even all the ugly awful drudgery of it. Now, if it’s a crisis or abusive situation, you need to work diligently and immediately to get out of harm’s way as best you can, of course. And still, there will be things to be thankful for. Don’t forget those things. Be aware and awaken to them. Appreciate them.
Practically, you can start each new day with a mindful moment or prayer of thanksgiving. You can all share one thing you’re thankful for with each other at dinnertime or bedtime. You can keep a gratitude journal where you write down 3 things that you appreciated about your day. Recent research shows that these simple practices really do lead to less stress and more health and happiness in our lives – whatever the circumstances.
10. Just Breathe. The universal remedy. It’s always with you – ready, willing, and able to help you heal. (Or not. It’s your choice.) Whenever you’re feeling frantic, frenzied, or frazzled, you can always return to peacefulness by returning to your breath. Slow, deep, cleansing breaths. Out goes the tension, in comes the peace. Gently, lovingly, strongly – just breathe. Let all other thoughts go lightly by. You may notice them, but you are not, for the moment, controlled by them. You are focusing on the sensations of your breathing. In-2-3-4, Out-2-3-4. In-2-3-4, Out-2-3-4. In-2-3-4, Out-2-3-4. Ahhhh.
Now you’re ready to return to number 1, and repeat these top ten tips over and over, bit by bit, as you and your child resume the daily activities of being back-to-school and on-the-go. Mindfully. Happily. Perfectly imperfectly. Content.