A truth universally acknowledged by parents everywhere is that pre-schoolers aren’t the best communicators. Even though, by now, they’re pretty good at the whole talking thing, there isn’t too much they want to share with us that we actually need to know. Like what they did at school today. Or what’s bothering them. Or what kind of sick they’re feeling.
In fact, if we get answers to our burning questions at all, they’re likely to leave us more confused than we began. “What did you do at school today, dear?” “We touched a piece and it made a slow sound and we’re okay now.” Uh-huh. “Do you feel sick? What’s bothering you?” “There’s a stomach ache in my toe and my tongue is thinking.” Got it.
But, often, the hardest thing to get our preschoolers to talk to us about is their feelings. I mean, sure, they’re very good at expressing their feelings — by, say, lying down in the middle of the crosswalk and screaming at the top of their lungs — but they’re not so great at telling us why they’re feeling what they’re feeling. Particularly when our kids are worried about something, it’s often the case that they don’t actually know what they’re worried about. They just feel like something’s off and they act accordingly. Which makes life harder for them, and for you.
Luckily, though, we adults have the benefit of experience in this area and, if we think about it a little, can probably make some pretty good guesses about what’s going on with our little ones. Unfortunately, though, simply explaining things to our preschoolers isn’t going to cut it. Try telling your kid, “You’re just worried about the babysitter coming over tonight. Don’t worry, everything will be fine.” You will probably get you a blank stare and more jittery behavior.
But there are a few things you can do to help your anxious preschoolers deal with their worries. You just have to come at the whole thing from a slightly different angle. If you’ve been dealing with some worries at home, and you’re not totally sure what to do, take a look at these tips. (And, by the way, if you’re reading this thinking why should I spend all this time helping my kid process his feelings? He’s a kid! He’ll get over it! that may or may not be true, but wouldn’t it be nice if your kid stopped behaving like a bundle of raw nerves?)
1. Tell a story
Make up a story about a character with a similar (but not identical) problem to your child. So, for example, if your kid is upset because he doesn’t want you to leave him at school, tell him a story about Freddie the bear who had to go off on his own to collect honey for the family, or whatever. If your kid is afraid of taking a new class he’s never tried before, make up a frog who’s afraid to learn how to swim. You get the idea. The main thing is to remember to add the worry into the story. You don’t want to tell your kid a story where someone is a little nervous and then right away loves everything and it’s awesome. That’s not your child’s experience. The characters in your story need to be just as nervous as your child, but over time (after three tries is usually a good storytelling device) he learns that it’s really okay. Also, if the scenario in your story is identical to your kid’s situation, he’ll see right through you, and he’ll tell you outright that he hates this story and he never wants to hear it again. So mix it up a little. Trust me.
2. Play with dolls
Dolls or stuffed animals are great avatars for your children. Pick a stuffed animal your child likes (but not his very favorite one; he probably won’t take kindly to you doing that animal’s voice) and have the animal “talk” about what’s bothering him. As with the story, make it similar to whatever’s on your kid’s mind, but not identical. Your child can talk to the stuffed animal either as himself or as another stuffed animal. If he doesn’t want to do that, then you can talk to the stuffed animal (either as yourself, or as another animal). “Oh no,” says Winnie the Pooh (for example). “I’m all out of honey but my Mommy’s not here to go to the honey tree with me.” Often, kids feel more comfortable talking about their feelings when it isn’t directly about them. They also feel really good getting to be the one giving the advice, rather than being lectured about what to do. It helps them to both figure out what they’re really feeling, and come up with ways to make it better.
3. Talk about your childhood
Without telling him why you’re mentioning it, tell you child about a time when you had a similar worry to the one your child is dealing with. “When I first went to preschool,” you could tell your child, “I was really worried that my mommy wasn’t going to come back and get me.” In this instance, it’s fine to be talking about the exact thing your child is worried about, but it’s a good idea not to bring it up in relation to your child. So, instead of saying, “I know you’re worried about school, I used to be worried too!” just starting talking about yourself out of the blue. If your child brings up his own worries, that’s a great time to talk about them. If not, just tell the story and move on. “After a while, though, I realized she always came back. Grown-ups always come get their kids from school at the end of the day.”
Our kids’ minds are mysterious places. But they’re not totally inaccessible. You just need to think outside the box a little. Because, honestly, when do our preschoolers think inside the box? See what I mean?