As we finish the year, my wife and I reflect on the progress our son, Charlie, has made since starting kindergarten two years ago. In the beginning, every morning Charlie thought he was saying goodbye to us forever.
His eighth day of kindergarten was the worst.
We had to say goodbye at the gate, instead of walking him to his classroom. Like many things we do with Charlie, we explained every step, in advance: park on the south side of the street, high fives to the crossing guard, big hugs, “I love you,” a quick wave, then through the gate and off to school with the other children.
We did the hugs, the wave, then through the gate he went… and it all fell apart. Charlie ran to the fence, clinging, tears dampening the already saturated, chewed up neckline of his Paw Patrol t-shirt. Fighting every parental instinct, we continued our part of the routine – waving, smiling, walking away and letting a teacher take over.
Going to school is one of many away-from-home experiences that are difficult for Charlie. Sensory processing disorder and often paralyzing anxiety challenge him daily, but he’s blossomed since that eighth day of kindergarten.
Occupational therapy, play therapy, half-read parenting books (one we actually finished was “Playful Parenting” by Lawrence Cohen, check it out!) and his own maturity have helped, but we’ve learned the most from other parents. To pay it forward, here are three lessons learned about helping kids overcome anxiety to enjoy new away-from-home experiences.
Prepare with information and visuals.
Our friend Dr. Laurie Sperry, a board certified behavior analyst, says that for kids with autism, anxiety and sensory sensitivities, “uncertainty breeds anxiety.” She says the more you can show kids visually what they’re going to do and talk about what’s going to happen, the experiences become clearer in their minds and it increases the likelihood of success.
Charlie constantly asked when we would go somewhere new: “What’s it going to be like?” “What if I get lost?” First, we were annoyed, but once we started actually answering him he became more comfortable. Now we tell him step-by-step what we’re going to do. We show him pictures and videos of where we’re going. Even if things don’t go as planned, he becomes more flexible when he’s not as anxious.
Get specific with their worries.
The most unproductive thing I used to tell Charlie was, “There’s nothing to worry about!” His play therapist corrected me, “Even if YOU know there’s nothing to worry about, you need to explain to Charlie why HE has nothing to worry about.”
Kids don’t like to talk about their worries, so we use a worry jar. He writes down his worries in the jar, and in the evenings, we talk about them. We’ve learned that many of his worries are easily addressed. For example, he worried about snakes in the toilet (snakes breathe air, so they can’t survive in the sewer!) and getting lost (now we identify meeting points and show him the uniforms that people who can help are wearing). Logic can’t solve all his worries, but our talks reduce his anxiety.
With love, push them just beyond their comfort zone.
In her book “The Loving Push,” renowned animal scientist and autism self-advocate Dr. Temple Grandin wrote, “The most important thing people did for me was to expose me to new things.” This is particularly meaningful for children with autism and other special needs, but it’s relevant for all children. Kids with sensory processing disorder are often uncoordinated because they have trouble judging where their body is in space. Charlie struggles with this daily, but we help him push through it.
After loving tee-ball last year, we asked if he wanted to play baseball. He said no – he still couldn’t catch the ball, he didn’t want to hit from a pitching machine, and he thought his teammates wouldn’t like him because he’d get out all the time. We pushed him, with love. The early games were tough, but his perseverance has been astonishing. Baseball is now his favorite sport, and on the way to a game recently Charlie said, “Dad, I’m glad you signed me up for baseball. I’m pretty good at it.” Those are the moments you live for as a parent.
While he still struggles with anxiety and sensory challenges, Charlie is a confident, hilarious, thoughtful first-grade graduate. And he’s already preparing his little sister for her first day of kindergarten in the fall.
Adam and his wife, Melanie, are the founders of Pal, which provides free tools to help families impacted by disabilities prepare for and enjoy memorable experiences at inclusive Pal Places. They live in Phoenix with their son, Charlie (6), and their daughter, Anna (5). For more information about Pals, please visit palexperiences.org.