Crisis Alert! It’s pretty scary for girls to find out that their BFF isn’t in their class this year. Handling that crisis is the topic of the second of four Back to School posts. If that’s what’s happening in your house right now, this post is for you.

Melissa and Avery

Melissa slumped into the chair in my office with a soft thud. Her nine-year-old daughter Avery, she explained, was in the midst of a meltdown because she’d just learned that, for the first time ever, her best friend Lila would not be in her class at school. Avery was inconsolable.

“She’s so scared!” Melissa exclaimed, on the verge of tears herself. “What am I going to do?”

I knew Melissa wished I could just hand her a tip or two that would magically turn this situation around. But there really is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to helping children grow. Success would come from Melissa understanding her multiple roles in helping Avery through this crisis. We needed to get to work and tailor a plan that would be a fit for Avery – and for Melissa, too.

If you’ve had a chance to read the Back to School post on Separation Anxiety, you’re already familiar with the process we used to tackle Avery’s painful problem. It’s four manageable steps that guide you into creating a plan that uniquely fits your daughter’s needs and strengths. Here’s how that worked with Melissa and Avery.

1. Picture in your mind what you’re trying to accomplish.

Melissa wanted Avery to be able to make new friends. As we delved more deeply, she could see that beneath that goal was another. She was seeking to build Avery’s confidence – that potent feeling that exactly who she is is perfectly fine, accompanied by an unspoken assumption that of course other kids will want to be friends with me! She began to sense that telling Avery how to approach another child, introduce herself, how to find her way into a group – all of these things were necessary, but without confidence radiating from within, they could come across in an empty way. Melissa was after something bigger for her daughter.

2. Take a good look at your fears.

It was her own fears that made Melissa sink into the chair with worry. It was going to be very hard for her to be the solid source of strength Avery needed her to be, that is, to anchor Avery in this crisis, until she got a handle on her own fears.

For Melissa, like many moms, there was something terribly sad about imagining a child alone on the playground. To her, that meant that the child was very lonely, depressed even, possibly rejected by the other children, and longing for a friend. She herself had been painfully isolated as a child, and she feared that it would be the same for Avery. And she was afraid that Avery would not be able to bounce back from this. When she began to see how she could actively build Avery’s capacity for resilience, her worry gave way to determination, and her own strength kicked in.

3. Accept your child’s fears. Try to get a good picture of what’s swirling through her mind.

I was careful about working with Melissa on this, because so often there’s a temptation to get a child to articulate what’s worrying her so that you can say, “Oh, that’s not going to happen!” When she imagined how those words would make her feel if she were facing a scary situation, she quickly realized that this would not be the ticket to empowering Avery to make friends. The goal was to gain some clues about how to help Avery by listening to what was going on in her inner world.

Armed with that understanding, Melissa took Avery on a drive for ice cream and they talked. That is, Melissa sprinkled gentle questions in and then listened carefully. Avery, she learned, was missing Lila terribly — even though school had not yet begun. She believed that they wouldn’t see each other anymore. And she couldn’t summon up in her imagination a picture of making a new friend. Lila was naturally outgoing; Avery naturally more reserved. Meeting new people had usually been Lila’s role – not Avery’s. Avery didn’t think she knew how to do it. The insight this conversation gave Melissa helped her understand how she could help.

4. Make a plan that utilizes your daughter’s strengths.

Without realizing it, Melissa had already set a plan in motion. She had begun by regaining her own sense of calm so she could anchor her daughter. Knowing that Avery was able to put her thoughts and feelings into words, she had set the stage for a conversation. She had then listened very carefully to understand Avery’s thoughts and feelings. She had served as a mirror to Avery, by reflecting back to her an accurate picture of what was going on inside her. By doing that she conveyed to Avery that her feelings could be understood and they were okay, and that Melissa was not afraid of Avery’s feelings.

Now she could move into the next part of her plan: providing information and perspective. Melissa reminded Avery that in fourth grade the kids go to different rooms for different subjects and that it was possible that she and Lila would be in the same room for at least one subject. Also, there would be lunch and recess where they could talk and play together. Avery decided to set up a play date with Lila soon after school started.

Melissa asked Avery about the new girl who had joined her class at the end of third grade. Avery, on her own, had swooped in and immediately included her in everything! She had made a friend with no trouble at all. And – that friend would be in her new class.

She reminded Avery of her previous teachers and asked Avery about times she had gone to them when she needed help. Her new teacher would be there to help her, too. In fact, other kids and parents said she was really wonderful.

Finally, she talked with Avery about how much she had learned from Lila about making friends. It was true – Avery had watched Lila for years. This is so powerful – and we, as parents, can easily underestimate it. When children are exposed to someone who is consistent and skilled and kind over a period of time – and then suddenly they are faced with a situation to handle on their own – everything they’ve absorbed from this mentor kicks in. It might not be easy; it’s still a big challenge – but Avery would very likely find that she could connect with other children the way she had learned from Lila. As they continued to talk, Avery began to feel more confident and optimistic about returning to school.

But Melissa was not finished. She now had a handle on how to help, and she intended to continue, this time by taking intentional steps to build Avery’s resilience. That’s a topic for another day – and a good one, because there’s a lot moms can do.

Back to Melissa’s goal

Did you notice how the word “shy” never came up in any of these conversations? That was not an accident. Children believe exactly what we tell them about themselves, and Melissa didn’t want to build “shyness” into Avery’s sense of self. Instead, she focused on the specifics of what Avery was feeling. She was missing her best friend. She was unsure what to do without her there. Melissa addressed the specifics of Avery’s concerns and focused on building her confidence.

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