Back-To-School Anxiety: Tips on Herding the Purple Cow

So the kiddos have been back to school for a few weeks now. How’s the back-to-school anxiety level in your household? In ours, it seems we’re still sorting through back-to-school anxiety, with mixed results.

Your back-to-school anxiety checklist

Have you noticed any of these back-to-school anxiety symptoms in your child(ren) since they resumed classes this fall?

  • Nightmares/bad dreams (especially if your kiddo doesn’t usually have them).
  • Clinginess/needing to be with you nonstop, from the second they step off the bus to the moment you tuck them in (especially from a child who’s usually not clingy).
  • Talking your ear off about the blow-by-blow of every interpersonal drama they witnessed (especially when they usually won’t tell you ANYTHING about the school day, and/or they’re supposed to be going to sleep).
  • Mysterious and unexplained chest pains, tummy aches, and/or muscle-aches-requiring-a-massage (especially after you’ve already tucked the child in for the night).
  • Difficulty sleeping, accompanied by corresponding crabbiness the next day due to lack of sleep.
  • Getting up several times after being tucked in with just “one more thing” (especially if this is not how your kiddo usually rolls).
  • “Needing” to take a stuffed animal to school “to give me courage” (especially if your child was never one to cling to security objects in the first place).
  • A sudden resurgent interest in movies about going-back-to-school, feeling-like-you-don’t-fit-in, and/or trying-to-find-your-place-in-the-social-spectrum (in our case, the film in question is Monsters University).

If your child scored 8 out of a possible 8 points, congratulations! Your kiddo ranks right up there with Kimmie’s current score.

What gives?

That’s what I’ve been asking myself for the past month or so. Kimmie has NEVER been a clingy child. She was never the type to haul around a security blanket or other prized toy with her everywhere she went. Her first day of preschool, she marched into the building at drop-off without so much as a backward glance.

Does back-to-school anxiety have your kiddo feeling like the only purple cow in the field?

Yet my formerly self-assured firstborn seems less confident of herself than ever before, now that she’s in first grade. Even though she’s in the same school as last year, and already knew many of her classmates. Granted, our district still has half-day kindergarten, so she’s now spending twice as long at school as she did last year. But even in preschool, she had full days several times a week thanks to the optional add-on programs she attended.

Best I’ve been able to come up with so far is this: For whatever reason, Kimmie has begun this school year feeling like a fish out of water. Or, if you prefer something less cliché, a purple cow.

The Purple Cow Syndrome

In case you’re not familiar with it, “The Purple Cow” is a short poem by Gelett Burgess, and first appeared in 1895:

I never saw a Purple Cow,
I never hope to see one;
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I’d rather see than be one.

Imagine for a moment that you’re the Purple Cow in this poem. You don’t fit in anywhere; instead, you stand out with nowhere to hide. And not only are you not part of the herd, but no one WANTS you to be part of their herd.

This is how Kimmie’s been feeling since the start of school, far as I can tell. The sneeze-by-sneeze commentary I get about every school-day soap opera is the most noteworthy aspect of this.

The Purple Cow At Home

She actually almost missed the school bus this morning, thanks to her half-hour recounting of every vivid detail of the “strange dreams” she had last night. Not bad enough to send her running to our room in the wee hours – but powerful enough that she had to get them off her chest.

Every dream fragment she recounted revolved around the school day, starting with a lesson on light that involved the classroom being lit by candles. Which was fine for Kimmie, until Puck – the boy who sits next to her – accidentally knocked his candle over. This led to hot wax spilling all over the name sign on Kimmie’s desk, which in turn erased her name. An apt metaphor for how she seems to have been feeling over the past month.

And mixed in with the snatches of dreams were real-life dramas from recent school days, snippets that hadn’t yet appeared in each afternoon’s soap opera installment. Like the recent lunch period when Kimmie sat across from a girl named Kasha. The cafeteria was serving spaghetti and meatballs that day. And as Kimmie recounted it, “I was saying something over and over that was annoying Kasha, and Kasha said that if I didn’t stop, she was going to throw a meatball at me!”

“Well, did you stop?” I asked.

“No,” Kimmie confessed.

“So did she throw a meatball at you?” I continued.

“No, something even worse!” Kimmie said dramatically. “She threw a MEATBALL SHE HAD ALREADY TAKEN A BITE OUT OF at me!”

Why is the cow purple, anyway?

I haven’t studied psychology since high school, but it’s pretty obvious to me that something bigger is going on here. At least in Kimmie’s mind.

For what it’s worth, being a Purple Cow is NOT the same as being a “Special Snowflake.” My husband has seen far too many Special Snowflakes in his teaching career. The last thing we want, or try, to do is raise our kids with a sense of privileged entitlement to anything.

Just like everything else in life, making friends and figuring out where you fit in the pecking order takes hard work. It doesn’t happen magically, it doesn’t happen overnight, and there are no shortcuts.

Of course, there are other reasons why a kid could be having a difficult start to the school year:

  • Maybe an as-yet undiagnosed learning difference is starting to catch up with them. (That would be my brother Evan’s start to second grade, the year he was finally diagnosed with severe dyslexia.)
  • Maybe there’s something else going on at home, or on top of the back-to-school reality, to complicate this regular fall ritual. To borrow another plot line from the girls’ movie collection, think not Mike Wazowski searching for his niche in Monsters University, but rather Inside Outs Riley having to leave the only home and friends she’d ever known, for a new school in a new city.
  • Some kids are just more anxious than others. Occasionally, as with my friend Gretchen’s daughter Izzy, this is because the child has a highly sensitive temperament. Being sensitive is not a bad thing at all, but it may require different parenting techniques to help your kiddo function in their everyday world.
  • Sometimes ratcheted-up expectations, such as with the added homework of a new grade level, can trigger a case of stress that goes beyond the usual “back-to-school blues.” Your kiddo may need professional help if their anxiety doesn’t get better, verges toward depression, or totally disrupts their ability to function.

Herding the Purple Cow

But in Kimmie’s case, she’s just having a hard time sorting out her place in the herd as a first-grader. Not only does she have to figure out her new classroom dynamics, but she has more contact with kids from older classes than ever before, and she’s clear on where first-graders rank in the overall hierarchy.

So I’ve been spending a lot of time listening patiently to what’s going on at school. And trying to help her make sense of it all.

  • Because the older kids are “mean” to first-graders on the playground, I’ve reluctantly okayed Kimmie’s bringing a stuffed monkey she calls MoMo to school as a protective talisman. But since stuffed animals aren’t allowed at school, MoMo has to stay in her backpack, in her locker. I have to admit, she does seem less agitated about playground dynamics since she started packing MoMo in her schoolbag.
  • Kimmie’s reports of a first-grade Robin Hood, who allegedly steals things from the “haves” in the class and redistributes them to the “have-not’s,” provide a great starting point for chats about both respecting other people’s personal property, and not bringing valuables to school in the first place.
  • And that day when Kasha threw a half-eaten meatball at Kimmie? According to Kimmie, Kasha got in trouble for doing this. (Teachable moment: throwing food is off-limits at school, just like at home!)
  • But as I pointed out to Kimmie, Kasha did her a favor that Essie usually doesn’t. If Kimmie is doing something that annoys Essie, Essie usually reacts without first offering a verbal warning.

No, Kasha should not have thrown a meatball at Kimmie, half-eaten or otherwise. But Kimmie should have known better than to provoke Kasha in the first place. At the very least, she could have stopped upsetting Kasha as soon as Kasha said something, rather than continuing to poke the tiger.

Finding the Herd

Fortunately, most of what the experts have to say about helping your kiddo manage back-to-school anxiety (e.g., here, here, here, here, and here) meshes with what we’ve been doing anyway:

  • Listen to your kiddo.
  • Talk through things with them.
  • Help them to process what’s going on around them.

Chances are good that things won’t turn out the way your child hopes or expects. Nothing in life is that simple. Yes, Mike Wazowski eventually worked on the Scare Floor, as fans of Monsters, Inc. know well. But first he got kicked out of the School of Scaring at Monsters University. Moreover, he only found his herd after he reluctantly joined Oozma Kappa, the fraternity for misfits. The point is, he did find a herd in the end, and he realized that being O.K. was just fine.

As for Kimmie, I know there’s a whole world of Purple Cows out there. All she has to do is keep being the kind of friend she’d like to have. Sooner or later, I’m confident she’ll find her herd.

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11 thoughts on “Back-To-School Anxiety: Tips on Herding the Purple Cow”

  1. We have had some back to school anxiety, but not much. My son fears the unknown of the new teacher and he does struggle with some ADHD behaviors and so the teacher’s reaction to it can make or break the year for him.

    1. Ah, yes. The new teacher can be another major fear factor for kids. Mine were more nervous than afraid about new teachers per se, but I’m happy to report that the more anxious child has gotten better about this transition with each passing year, as she gets older 🙂

  2. Helping our kids navigate the difficulties of life is one of the hardest parts of being a parent. Thanks for sharing this story and such great tips for managing a common issue.

  3. My oldest started kindergarten this week and it’s been a big adjustment. He’s only checked two off your list: being clingy and lack of sleep. But I think he’s feeling the big emotions of a new school with none of his friends from preschool and much longer days than he had in preschool.

    1. Yesssss – this can be so hard for a lot of kids. Especially the social and emotional adjustments, but adding in the energy/sleep shortfalls makes it even harder. It’s amazing to watch them grow and adjust and overcome these hurdles, though – hope he has a blast in K regardless! 🙂

  4. Pingback: Over 30 Back to School Tips You'll Love!

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