“Ask A Trainer” is our monthly email dedicated to answering questions about Safe Conversations, written by an SC Senior Trainer.

QUESTION: How can I use Safe Conversations to help ease my child’s “back to school jitters?”

The past year and a half can be characterized by one word – fear. Fear of getting sick, fear of loved ones getting sick, fear of lives never returning to “normal”, fear of what the “new normal” may be…we have all been wracked with fear, and understandably so.

The fear has been hard enough for us adults to deal with, but perhaps even more difficult for our children to process. Why? Because the part of the brain that helps us process tough emotions like fear – the upper brain that houses the Pre-Frontal Cortex or PFC – is not even fully developed in kids younger than their late 20’s. That means that virtually every child under the age of say, 25, is already at a disadvantage in terms of the brain development needed to cope with what we’ve been through this year.

Fortunately for us and our kids, our brains are fully developed – although some of our friends and co-workers may wonder about that at times! But seriously, we have the tools to face fear head-on, and to help our kids do the same. All we need are the skills to use those tools effectively.

Empathy Is The Key
What’s happening to your child, in very simplified terms, is that her lower brain (the part that primarily deals with instinct and raw emotions) has taken over control and is not communicating with her upper brain, or PFC, which is responsible for our logical, objective functioning. She is flooded with emotions which leaves very little space for the logical reasoning of her upper brain.

Too often, we adults try to reason logically with a fearful child; but applying reason and logic to a child whose brain is in full-on emotional mode is like tossing gas on a fire – it only makes the child feel misunderstood and more alone in their fear.

While you may feel the desire to correct your child, what she really needs in this moment is connection. You connect with her through empathy, which tells her activated lower brain that you are with her, you understand her, and you are here to help, not to change or convince her.

Try this approach using the skills of validation and empathizing: first connect with her by validating her experience, using words such as, “Boy, not seeing your friends and teachers for so long and learning to do all those Zoom calls has been crazy this year! You’ve had to do school in a totally different way than ever before, and that’s hard for anyone!” Then empathize with her feelings: “I imagine with all that, it must be really scary for you to think about going back to school now. Is that true? What else are you feeling?”

Such a genuine display of empathy allows your child to “feel felt” and relax a little. Once she has calmed down, the upper brain is more available to participate in this crisis. When you see that she is no longer overwhelmed by emotions, you may now try to introduce logic and reason. Or you may just choose to be with your child in her emotions for a bit, letting her know that it’s healthy and natural to be scared, and that with the right skills, the fear she feels doesn’t have to overwhelm her.

By connecting with the upper brain and redirecting the lower, you help integrate both parts of your child’s brain, training her brain’s neuropathways to do this independently somewhere down the road.

It’s up to us adults to help our kids deal with the stress and confusion that comes with the fear of uncertainty. You can do it – it’s only brain science!

– Keva Ward
Safe Conversations Senior Trainer