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Kindergarten Pressure

QUESTION: My five-year-old son started out kindergarten beautifully, but has totally regressed in the last month. I have met with the guidance counselor and his teachers. He gets so anxious that he will make himself vomit before leaving for school. His teachers say that he's reluctant to join in activities, but is excelling in all other areas. Things are now getting very tense at home. My husband and son are constantly fighting. I'm at the end of my rope!

ANSWER: Your son is exhibiting a stress reaction to a new situation. Starting school is a major adjustment and your reactions to his distress can either compound or diminish his ability to adapt. As parents, our job is to serve as "shock absorbers" to the often harsh realties that are a part of our child's life.

Your child is doing great in all areas but one. Have patience with him. For some reason he is shy of joining in group activities that are social in nature. But he is excelling at all the rest! His anxiety is real and he deserves your tolerance and understanding. Become increasingly curious about his tension surrounding school adjustment rather than tense or judgmental.

Ask his teacher if your son has had any specific negative experiences or reactions to other adults or children while at school. If he is not reacting to some particular trauma, it may be the case that he is experiencing some difficulty with understanding social cues. Or he may be experiencing pressure to "succeed" at school in some exaggerated way. Perhaps he is a perfectionist of sorts and needs your help to relax and have fun in his new academic realm.

He will need to build confidence in his ability to enjoy school as he masters whatever it is that is causing him fear. Overstimulation in new situations can be overwhelming to any child. Try to grasp for yourself what he is feeling in this situation. Accompany him to school and stay with him for the first half hour. Put aside judgment and "try on" his experience. He may be overly stimulated by large groups of children playing boisterously in strange surroundings, particularly if he has not experienced crowds of children in the past. Some children need more familiarity before they feel safe. Once he has figured out the rules, he may feel safe enough to join in. It is possible that your calming presence may help him bridge his fears.

Also, check with his teacher about whether he seems to be enjoying the activities at which he is excelling. Is he having fun, or trying too hard to please? Performance anxiety could cause him stress that increases his anticipation over the next day's accomplishments. See if you can discover what genuinely interests him so that you can encourage his development and feelings of success and enjoyment of learning through natural avenues. And consider assessing the school environment, teacher's style and personality and overall ambience to be sure it is a good fit for his needs. Some children develop better in a smaller group setting and some teacher-student fits are better than others.

Talk with your husband about his own tensions related to his son. Is your husband experiencing anxiety related to his son's difficulties that causes him to reject instead of help his son adjust? What kind of relationship did he have to school as a child and what kind of support did he experience from his father during stressful situations? Could he be inadvertently transferring his own fears of failure onto his son? These questions are key to finding out whether your son may be reacting to a disturbance in his relationship with his father which could be threatening his sense of emotional survival. If so, this could indeed create distress beyond what would usually be expected in school adjustment.

Ask your husband to recover his patience and stand behind his son in his time of need. Clearly your son is already experiencing a significant amount of stress. Adding further tension to the situation will only make matters worse. Instead, invite your husband to use his curiosity and compassion to decrease your son's pressure rather than add to it! Go together to meet with the teacher and counselor to discover what the emotional meaning of your son's anxiety may be, and brainstorm methods to help him master his fear.

Keep in mind that this is only one of several times your patience and tolerance will be called upon during your experience of parenting. Do not shy away from developing compassion and strengthening tolerance in situations that challenge your patience. Your child will learn to internalize these qualities of patience and compassion for use in the next situation that he will be challenged to master. Setting a good example for addressing stress and solving problems now will help all of you deal with the next difficulty with greater equanimity.

If these suggestions do not help to eliminate your son's stress, consider consulting a child psychologist who is knowledgeable about children that experience problems with adjustment to school and social situations. Kindergarten is his first experience of school and structured learning. It is important that your son experience success and pleasure rather than anxiety and trepidation.

Kindergarten is not only hard on kids, but stressful for parents, too! This is your first child, and school adjustment is often experienced by parents as difficult. It is your first experience of your son out in the world and it is natural for you to feel your own pressure about his ability to "fit in" and achieve in "larger society". Keep in mind that your marriage is YOUR buffer against stress. Turn to each other for emotional support. Giving comfort to one another during periods of stress will make you more capable of having patience for helping your son through difficult times.


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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