A couple days ago, as we were starting to wind down for the night my son was bouncing around with an added amount of nervous energy.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“My band teacher is going to be gone tomorrow and he asked me to lead the class.” His smile was a mixture of pride and insecurity as he fidgeted from one foot to the other. “I’m so nervous, I have butterflies in my stomach!”
“You’re going to be fine, besides, there will be a teacher in the room, so it’s not like you will be all alone.”
“He chose one boy, me, and one girl too.”
“See, you’ll be okay. And it’s not until tomorrow so it does you no good to worry about it now.”
“But I’m so nervous!”
He hopped and wiggled around the room, his anticipatory energy needing to be released. I could tell he was not sure how to react to all the feelings that were bouncing around inside of him. Even though part of me wanted him to stop messing around and get on with it, I took a deep breath, we chatted for a little while longer on what exactly he was going to have to do and he finally made his way to the shower. (Side note: A few months ago, I realized my son’s favorite time to share his day is right before he gets in the shower. It was challenging at first, because it extended the time it took to get the routine completed, but on the other hand I recognized this was when he felt most comfortable sharing the details of his day. Once I recognized this, I started our routine a few minutes earlier, so he still got to bed on time and I didn’t feel like I had to rush him through the routine.)
After his shower, he was brushing his teeth and said again, “I’m just so nervous!”
“Buddy, trust me, it’s going to be just fine, but let’s just think for a minute - what do you think is the worst thing that could happen?”
“The other boys will make fun of me.”
“You are right, they will definitely make fun of you, that’s what boys do. Who do you think is going to say something and what do you think they are going to say?”
“They’re going to think that I want to be the boss and tell them what to do and they are just going to want to goof around.”
“But you didn’t ask your teacher to do this, he assigned it to you, right?”
“Okay, then it’s not like you asked to be the boss, he just chose you. So, what do you think you can say to the boys when they say that to you?”
“I could just ignore them ‘cuz it’s not true.”
“I think that sounds like a great idea. I know it’s hard and kind of scary to think about standing in front of your class, but I know you will do an awesome job. But for right now we are not even at school, so let’s not worry about it until tomorrow, deal?”
I know it’s always easier said than done, but he was content for the moment and thankfully able to fall asleep. I was surprised to see him the next morning without me having to coax him out of bed. The nerves and butterflies were back, today was the big day. I asked him what time the class was, 10:20, and I told him I would be sending him a big hug. He went off to school ready to face the challenge of the day.
I sat at my desk a couple hours later and sent him words of encouragement through the air waves, knowing he was nervous but hoping the kids wouldn’t be too hard on him.
When I got home later that night, I couldn’t wait to ask him how it went.
“I didn’t have to do it! We didn’t have a sub, so we just went to recess instead!”
“Oh my gosh, I bet you were so relieved! See you spent all that time worrying and it didn’t even happen. How were you feeling before class?”
He jumped out of his seat. “I was SO nervous. My heart was beating so hard. It was like this.” He clasped his fingers together and outstretched his arms to show his heart beating out of his chest. “And then the teachers were talking, and the other teacher couldn’t be the sub, so we just got to have recess. I ran out there so fast, I was SO happy.”
My son had survived, as I knew he would, but I hoped I had planted a little seed for the next time this type of situation comes around. It’s hard for us to watch our kids go through these stages. We empathize with them because we remember those nervous feelings and now with our experience, we also know the only way to conquer the fear is to face it head on. My original instinct was to downplay the situation, to gloss over it and make it seem like not a big deal, but I know that is not always the best way to help. He was having big feelings about this and instead of me sweeping them under the rug like it wasn’t a big deal, it was better for me to get him to talk through his feelings. Kids won’t always know the right words to attribute to the feelings, but the more we talk about them and talk through them, the bigger their vocabulary will get. Also acknowledging his physical feelings and letting him wiggle them all out vs. trying to get him to stay still to have a discussion was an important part of the process. Role playing the worst-case scenario and how he would deal with it, helped identify and debunk the ideas in your head may not be that big of a deal after all.
This does not guarantee I’ll handle the next emotional outburst with the same ease. It’s all practice. I firmly believe we all do the best we can do in any given moment. I realized it’s not always going to be this easy, the social dynamics are going to get harder, the stakes for success are going to get higher, but it’s in these small moments we can begin creating the foundation by talking about feelings, before they get bottled up and tucked away.
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