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Kindergarten jitters: it’s not just the kids who are apprehensive

A child’s first day of kindergarten is a watershed moment. Few people — of any age — have forgotten what it felt like to walk into a new school for the very first time.

While it is an exciting time for children and parents alike, it can also be coupled with stress.

For many, kindergarten may be a child’s first prolonged separation from parents. During their first week, they will be spending hours in an unfamiliar place with strangers.



And it’s not just the kindergartners who are adapting to something new.

“Parents of kindergartners often have more trouble separating than their child does,” said Nevada City psychotherapist Danelle Riles.




“Don’t be surprised if you find yourself sobbing on the drive home. I would suggest that parents give themselves space to have their own feelings related to the transition, honor the experience, and find ways to support themselves through self-care and connecting with other parents.”

Often, the most difficult aspect for parents is being apart for the first time, echoes Sierra Sparks, a marriage and family therapist at Sierra Family Therapy in Grass Valley.

“The most challenging for parents is separation anxiety — this is almost as hard on the parents as the child,” said Sparks. “There is a tendency to feel bad for your child and an attempt at easing their suffering by comforting them. However, this can have an opposite effect and only make it worse. The best option is actually to tell them you love them, reassure them and walk away.”

Much of anxiety comes from the unknown, added Sparks, so it’s helpful to let children know what to expect.

“It’s human nature to gravitate towards the known or familiar,” she said.

“Parents can explain what a typical day will be like. Ease some of your child’s questioning and have a discussion about it. ‘Where will I go to the bathroom?’ ‘Who do I tell if I need something?’ ‘Who will my teacher be?’ ‘What will my day look like?’ It might also be helpful to visit the school ahead of time.”

Establishing routines during the week can have a calming effect, say the experts, including regular family dinners, consistent bedtimes and evening quiet time.

“Downtime” is essential, as children who are overscheduled tend to burn out.

“Don’t be surprised if your child does not want to talk about his day when they are first picked up,” said Sparks. “It may take them a while to process all of what they experienced.”

While most children will adapt fairly easily to kindergarten, how can a parent tell when a child is having a rough time and may need a counselor?

“He or she may regress in behavior, for example, wanting to sleep with parents, digging up old toys or stuffed animals or becoming clingy,” said Riles.

“They may have trouble sleeping, eating or begin bed-wetting. Often distress in young children manifests as somatic symptoms such as stomach aches or headaches. If you have concerns about your child’s adjustment to kindergarten, talk to your child’s teacher or school counselor about finding support.”

When it comes to their peers, 4- and 5-year-olds are developmentally egocentric and have trouble navigating the “give and take” nature of relationships, said Riles, which can make friendships a challenge.

“When working with young school-age children, I often hear that they either like or don’t like a friend based on whether the friend likes to play what they want to play,” Riles continued.

“Parents can best support them by encouraging them to ask new friends what they may want to play and reinforcing this behavior when it happens.”

In addition, said Riles, arrange play dates with new friends.

“This is also a good opportunity to meet other parents and begin building relationships,” she said. “Forming relationships with your child’s friends’ parents is invaluable. Start this habit now. When you child reaches adolescence and it’s especially important to keep tabs on your teen, you will be glad you built strong relationships with other parents. This cannot be overestimated.”

Above all, parents should take time to honor their child’s new life chapter.

“Take the time to celebrate this important accomplishment,” said Riles.

“You have prepared your child to begin to go out into the world to share their unique interests, talents and abilities. This is something to celebrate!”

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at cfisher@theunion.com or call 530-477-4203.


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