Back-To-School: How You Start Is How You Finish
I have not written a blog for two weeks. And now here I am. I feel rather delighted with the quiet time I had and with all that I have achieved in these two weeks. One aspect that took up most of my time was my investment in my children’s back-to-school preparations. That required focused time and attention from me. It is such an important part of my year that even my Christmas preparations can’t compare. Why? Well, because I am a big believer in “how you start is how you finish”.
In the days leading up to the first day of the new school year, we (being Michael and I) encourage our children not only to start getting to bed a little earlier; we also coach them into thinking about what personal goals they want to set for themselves for the year ahead. Our back-to-school preparation includes providing our children with: a safe space to face their fears, plant their hopes and to acknowledge what supports they already have for the challenges that the year will bring.
One of those challenges for our family is when Savannah has a medical flare up. This happens at anytime during the year. Sometimes she is admitted to hospital and that means our family routines change drastically. Both Talisa and Eli know what it feels like to face an important exam or event while feeling worried about their sisters’ health. It would be neglectful of us to assume that the concerns we deal with regarding Savannah do not make an impression on Talisa and Eli. Anxiety is a real issue for teenagers and too often they are not taught helpful ways to deal with this. Anxiety in teens:What it looks like and strategies to help from Parent24 offers some insight into this topic.
In our home, Michael and I have a golden rule all year round but most especially during the month of January: we ensure that we are available to Talisa and Eli to listen to anything they have to say. We believe that “how you start is how you finish” and we want them to start strong. What they are saying or not saying as they begin the daily school grind are markers that guide us on how best to support them. We know that as teenagers our children need us to listen more and to lecture less. Sometimes that can be really hard to do as parents. An educational psychologist has been part of our parenting journey at different times and we value the process that we went on with them in helping us to help a specific child at a specific time.
Savannah being autistic meant that our then educational psychologist had her work cut out for her in teaching us neuro-typical parents a totally different way of thinking about parenting. We learnt how our emotions affected Savannah when we did not understand what she needed. We learnt that we caused more anxiety if we indulged ourselves with unbridled expressions of emotions. It only exacerbated the issue at hand as Savannah’s anxiety increased and we became part of the problem when we should have been part of the solution. We learnt how to express ourselves in a way that became supportive to Savannah without any outbursts from her or us. You could say, having learnt to respect our child’s right to a space that is calm and patient, means that Savannah trained us well for her siblings. 🙂
Generally teenagers are usually more emotional yet less able to express that in a way that will be helpful to themselves. We want Talisa and Eli to feel free to express their fears and hopes without the worry about whether or not it will displease us. We want them to feel brave to go to every corner of their souls to seek out what might be possible for them and to be able to explore those ideas with us. Even if we do not understand it, it is more important for them to feel free to express themselves than for us to limit them to only our own understanding of them and to our dreams for them.
This time of planning, discussing and listening to each other before the school year consumes us is empowering for all of us. Our plan includes our goals, how to achieve that and what supports are available to each family member. I wrote about this last year in my post The Safe House. Each person writes down their personal goals, their academic or career goals, their spiritual goals and we agree on a goal or goals for us as a unit. We talk about what we have written and if necessary we discuss how the family routines or resources will be restructured to support relevant goals. We also write down how we plan to achieve each goal and by when we want to accomplish each goal.
Having a child who is autistic and medically complex means that Michael and I cannot completely plan what she will need during the year. But sharing our goals together means that we are all continuously looking out for each other. Not only are Michael and I mindful of being available to the children and being realistic about what they need; the children too become more involved in how we function as a family. We found that as they naturally assume more responsibility for their sister than she will ever be able to do for them, they also naturally become a support system to each other and in some ways to us a well. This is not a bad thing for children.
We discuss different areas of our lives as we plan for back-to-school. Some areas require more detailed discussions and others may require a less detailed discussion. From having daily routines and acknowledging how each of our routines impact each other, to deciding who we will pursue relationships with and who we will cool off from (if anyone) are all part of these plans for the forthcoming year. We pray for the year ahead and for each other.
During the year Michael and I make a habit of checking in with each other and with the children about their plans. We also celebrate when the children achieve a goal (Michael and I are learning to do the same for ourselves too). At the end of each school year, we review this document. It is empowering to see how much each person achieved. If someone did not achieve a goal we discuss this together. We facilitate a discussion to help our children reflect on themselves for answers as to why they did not achieve a goal. This has been of greater significance for them that we do not accuse them. Ultimately, we want our children to take responsibility for the pursuit of their dreams. We want them to be brave enough to be self-aware of their own shortcomings. Mostly we want them to learn how to pick themselves up and to persevere instead of falling into self-criticism.
During all of this, the very personal goal I set for myself is to be a parent who helps her children to aim for the highest version of themselves with self-respect and self-love.
Next week, I will share more about how I helped my teens get into a positive mindset using an idea I learnt at Journey To You.