Category Archives: Articles

Starting School Part 2: How to Unpack the Backpack

My daughter’s first day of school was one of the hardest days of my life.  Although we had  some times in the past when separating from one another had been full of feelings, we  worked through them together, and things, up to then, had been pretty smooth.  Cheerful up to that point, on this day she started to wail and cling to me as she lined up at the doorstep of the classroom.

unpacking the backpackThe teacher looked increasingly alarmed, and then more and more annoyed with me.  Other children were beginning to waver in their confidence, considering joining my daughter in a serious cry.  Heartbreaking as it was, it just was not going to work for me to stay.  I walked away, my nerve ends on fire.  Over time it got easier, but I had to work hard at it.

Whether the summer is drawing to a close, or you are thinking about starting school in the New Year, it’s a good time to be preparing your child, and yourself, for the transition.

In Part 1, I discussed the important role parents and carers have in building an “emotional safety net” as our children start school for the first time, begin a new school or return to school after the long summer. We can make time to help our children and ourselves through the transition to school and use Special Time to give our child the “connection vitamins” they  need to get through the day.

However, upsets will surely come.  How can we best help our children to unpack their “emotional backpack” and get rid of the difficult feelings which they bring home from school?

Expect Upsets

“She’s been so grumpy lately!” a father told me as we struck up a conversation.  “She keeps getting upset about little things, and she seems to be struggling with maths homework that I know she could do last year.”  After a few questions, I learned they had just moved into town, and she was a few weeks into starting at a new school.

It’s a common story.  Perhaps because we are big, and we know a lot about the world, we can take these kinds of transitions in our stride—although they rate amongst the most stressful for adults too. But for children, starting school, or a new school, can be huge. Perhaps they have had some preparation at childcare or preschool, but almost everything and everyone in the day is new.

Children can’t think when they are stressed.

Children can’t think when they are stressed beyond a certain point (a different point for each child, and each occasion). Often, they are not able to tell us in words that something is wrong.

Infuriating as this is, there’s a good explanation. Under stress, the part of their brain that deals with executive functions—the “thinking brain”—isn’t working. This is their pre-frontal cortex, which deals with reasoning, problem solving, analysing information, maintaining attention, and inhibiting emotional impulses. *1

Under stress, our children are flooded with feelings, so their sense of “all being right with the world” goes off-line, and often, they don’t feel at all connected with us.

The gift of small upsets.

Children, unable to articulate what has caused the problem, find small pretexts for their upsets about—it could be that they “can’t” find the right dress to wear, they “can’t” do a maths problem, their hair is not right, there are peas on their plate, or they are being asked to sit in the wrong car seat.

All those little blow-ups are actually clearing the decks, allowing your child to drain tension they have accumulated during the day or the week.  They may be functioning really well at school—managing to figure out the rules, make friends, and absorb what they are taught.  But when they get home to you, it all unravels.

A father told me this story.  His son was a great swimmer, and in the previous school year had moved quickly and happily up the levels.  Over the summer, he was promoted to the “big pool” and was confident and proud of himself.  In the first week of school, however, when they arrived at the pool after school he refused to get in.  His dad kept gently encouraging him to get in, but the boy was in tears at the side of the pool.  The father told me:

“We stayed there, with me gently encouraging him into the pool, for as long I as could stand it.  I let him cry.  After a while, the swimming teacher came over and tried to ‘jolly him out of it’ and I decided it was time to go home.  I think my son was just drawing the line. Even though it was his second year at the school, and his return to school had gone well, the week had been just too much.  It all came to a head over getting in the pool.  He had hung onto those feelings all day and now that I was there it was safe to show how hard it really was.”


One of the most common experiences for children starting school is separation from you. These feelings are a bit like a scab—at first very raw, but over time the skin dries out and hardens and the feelings are less available to feel. But every now and again, something brushes against the scab and the feelings are right there again.

Starting school for the first time, or after the long summer holidays, can pull up old feelings of separation.  Be kind to yourselves and your children:  leave time for some extra upsets over the first few weeks, as the scab is lifted again, and as feelings about school and about leaving you surface again.  Take every opportunity you can to listen to your child—when he seems to be having big upsets about small things, or seems to be much more clingy than usual.

The healing process – unpacking the backpack

Just like play, I think children know  they need opportunities for emotional release.  Crying releases the sadness and tantrums release frustration. And laughter, it turns out, releases light fears and embarrassment. This is why the whole classroom starts to giggle when Johnny gets in trouble for being in the wrong place.  They are not being disrespectful.  They are releasing light fear.

This sort of emotional release will help a child to recover.  It’s especially effective when a child is “anchored” by a compassionate, caring adult who is able to see them through without reacting, rejecting, blaming, explaining away the upset, or rushing to reassure or comfort them.  We call this Staylistening.

When the upset has passed, the child will regain access to their “thinking brain” – which was previously offline and flooded with emotion.

“It’s not safe to cry there, Mummy”

This is what my friend’s daughter concluded about school.  Raised in Parenting by Connection, she expected her feelings to be welcomed and worked through.  We had to explain that it was hard for the teachers to listen, given all the things they were trying to manage.  But we assured her that she could save it up until she got home.  We would listen to her then.

I think most teachers know that strong emotions can get in the way of a child’s ability to learn.  But they are seldom in a position to allow a full-blown upset. And there is the strong impression, in schools and in society in general, that the upset is the hurt.  We think that if we stop the crying, we stop the hurt.  But in fact the crying and the upset are the process of releasing the hurt.  Tears of upset contain stress hormones which are not found in the tears we shed when we cut an onion. *2

My friend’s daughter is remarkably clear about this.  Preparing for her first school sleepover trip, she said “The problem isn’t that I am going to miss Mummy.  I am.  It’s that no-one there will let me cry about it.”  And my daughter, now 11, says “I wish the teachers wouldn’t do all that stuff of offering us a glass of water when we are upset.  It just makes us stuff the feelings down.”

Becoming a school parent.

Part of the project of becoming the parent of a school-aged child is developing ways of helping your child with her feelings about school when she’s safely home with you. Building connection and closeness through Special Time, and knowing that upsets, big and small, are an opportunity you can respond to with Staylistening will help.

We want the best for our children. Starting or re-starting at school is a time of transition for adults and children alike.  To keep supporting your child in the way you want, you will also need to build support around yourself, so you can keep thinking and building the relationship you will need in order to be the best “school parent” you can be.
You can learn more about building connection with your children, and the Listening Tools in the Parenting by Connection Starter Class.

Or, if you think that you would like more intensive assistance, you could join the Parents Intensive, starting in late January, and running for ten weeks.  Registration ends January 17th, and my call group starts on January 25th (January 26th in Australia).  (P.S if you are in Australia, the current exchange rate makes this expensive – consider applying for a scholarship from Hand in Hand to assist – you can find out more here.  If you are thinking of doing this, it would be good to do it soon, so you can join our first call.)


*1  Medina, J. (2009). Stress – Rule #8: Stressed brains don’t learn the same way. In Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school (pp. 169-195). Seattle, WA, USA: Pear Press.  On p. 80 Medina describes the role of prefrontal cortex.

* 2 Mann, N. (no date). The health benefits of crying. Retrieved July 30, 2015, from <>

This article was first published on Hand in Hand Parenting.

creative-commonsFree for reuse as long as you credit the author. See our copyright page for details.

© 2018 by Madeleine Scott Winter.

What would growing up look like if being little was respected?

Children playing on roundabout wheel.I’ve just spent the weekend with my daughter, who is 12 and my nephew, who is 9.  It surprised me to see the changes that have happened for her since they last hung out together. Temperamentally well suited, they have both got lively imaginations, and in the past have played happily together for hours, engaged in imaginative role play (mostly, when he is around, with Lego).

Continue reading

Mother’s Day: You are Enough

Mother and baby look into each other's eyes

Mother’s Day is upon us again, and our families either struggle or rejoice in the business of celebrating us.  It’s a sweet ritual, once you get past the fact that it can look like just another opportunity to sell us something.

But I’ve been thinking about our challenge, as mothers, to rejoice in ourselves.  To be pleased with ourselves.  Really.  Deeply.  Without criticism or recrimination.  To know that we are enough.

I remember going into our Local Government Chambers to hire an infant baby carrier for the car (what a wonderful service, given that we only need the thing for a few months).  My baby was still in my belly, soon to arrive.  I was fresh to parenting, unharried, excited.  Beside me was a mother returning the carrier that she had been using.  She had a toddler in tow, and a baby – maybe nine months old, in a stroller.

She looked tired and harassed.  Her attention was not on her children, but on interacting with the Customer Service Person.  But I noticed her younger child.  He had his gaze fixed firmly on her.  And the look on his face told me that she was the centre of his universe.  Simply, without anxiety, to him she was everything.  His look said “Isn’t it wonMother and child, eating together, and enjoying one another.derful?  You are my Sun and my Moon!”

He was adoring, but more.  For better or worse, she was his, they were connected.  He knew that his mother was “enough”.  She was busy, and I guess she knew, at some level, how important she was to him.  But I doubt she stopped very often to really absorb it.

And if she did, I bet there was part of her that would not feel worthy.

Continue reading

Talking To Children About Violent and Shocking Events

Non Muslim Mum and Daughter in solidarity.

Recently, we visited a local mosque, and put scarves on in solidarity. My daughter told the reporter “We are here to be together as one big family group.”

“Together” is the watchword for dealing with news of violence or death. “What can we do together, as a family, to remember those who died, and offer our caring?” is a healing question.

Patty Wipfler, Hand in Hand Parenting




In the last few days, we confronted the news of yet another dreadful act carried out against people who were just going about their daily life.  We face the tragedy and sadness of it: we may have family and friends who are directly affected in large or small ways; our hearts go out to the people directly affected, and the police and emergency services employees who put themselves on the line to deal with the situation, and to the communities who are touched by these events and the backlash which will inevitably follow.

We may worry about how safe we really are, so far away, but similarly vulnerable.   Even if we manage to avoid becoming pre-occupied with events as they unfold, it will in any case play out over weeks on our television screens, radios and newsfeeds.

As adults, we can put these events into a bigger context. We know that people can and will band together to pull through. Our children don’t always have such a big picture and it makes it hard for them to make sense of what they are seeing and hearing. Continue reading

When Bad Things Happen in the World

Quote from Martin Luther King "Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hatred, only love can do that."

Image thanks to Good Housekeeping


“Together” is the watchword for dealing with news of violence or death. “What can we do together, as a family, to remember those who died, and offer our caring?” is a healing question.

Patty Wipfler, Hand in Hand Parenting



I don’t tend to listen to or watch the news, but sometime on Saturday a couple of weeks ago it filtered through that something dreadful had happened somewhere in the world.

On Sunday, I woke knowing that it was serious, and that I would need some time to talk about how it makes me feel – how lucky am I, how easily it could happen in the city where I live, that my sense of safety in the world is dented.  The horror of imagining what it must be like to have been caught in the middle of it, the senseless waste and carnage, the anguish, shock.

I deliberately did not allow myself to listen to details about the event:  I’m pretty sure that I do not need to know.  I get the gist.  Things in the world are not good.

However, my mind was pulled to it all day.  In the evening, I met with a group of people and we took a short time, in pairs, just to listen in turn to one another about these events.  We cried about how shocking it was, we talked through the details of what we had seen on the news, we feared for our safety, we worried for our children.  Then, we went on with what we had planned to meet for.

It would have made no sense to keep going over the top of the feelings. And taking time to pay attention to, and feel, the feelings does not mean that there is not thinking to be done, and work, to fix things.  But the flood of feelings that comes up at a time like this can easily overwhelm us, drag us down and away from the thing we planned to do, and the things we could do to make the world a better place.

Continue reading

Who is Starting School?

An old school, built in 1890

An Old School Building by Madeleine Winter


If summer is drawing to a close (as it is in the Northern Hemisphere) you may be starting to think about the start of school.  Or here in Australia, you might be preparing for your child to start school in the New Year. For some, it is a return to something known and understood. But for those of us beginning school for the first time, it’s a big deal. And I mean for the big people as well as the little ones.



Who’s Starting School?

Often, as we prepare our families for the start of school, our attention is on the children.   Will they be upset when I have to leave? Will they make friends? Will they know what they need to know?   Will they learn well?

However, I’d like to start with the focus on us parents. I have not met many parents whose children are starting school who feel entirely calm and relaxed about it. For many of us, school brings up a lot of feelings. After all, we spent a lot of years there. Some of it was good, but some of it was hard. Most of us have not had a chance to talk much about those experiences. And some of us would rather not. Continue reading

Helping Your Angry Pre-Teen

More on the topic of Pre-Teens.  If you have Pre-Teen children, you will know that things start to change.  Special Time can be a great tool for parents and children to stay connected through times of change, including times when we don’t feel we really understand each other.

Special Time – a dedicated period of time where we put aside our pre-occupations and concerns, pay full attention to our child, and delight in them – begins to change as your children’s interests change.  But the magic that it works still applies:  it builds emotional safety into our relationship with our children at a particularly important time.

And when we do this, children will start to show us their upsets.  By the time they are 8, 9 10, some of those upsets will be about us, and much will be about what it has been like being a young person for 10 years or so, in a world that does not treat young people with much respect.

We need to listen warmly at these times, giving our children all the attention we can muster.  Inevitably, the upsets will tend to be scrappier and less direct than using the process with younger children.  When they were little we could being them onto our lap and hold them as they sobbed out their sorrows, but now they are more “defended” and their sorrows have hardened into anger, and we are working hard just to keep our foot in the door, before it slams (literally and metaphorically!).

But every bit of warm, non-judgemental hanging-in-there with our Pre-Teens makes a difference.  They notice EVERYTHING we do, and it all still matters to them.

Here’s a great article by Hand in Hand  Founder, Patty Wipfler, on just what is going on for our Pre-Teen children, and for us:


Five Tips for Parenting your Pre-Teen

Guest Post by Julie Johnson, Parenting by Connection Instructor, Berkely, CA, USA

Pre-Teen sisters smile at the camera.

Sisters, by Jenn Durfey, [CC-BY-2.0],

My colleague, Julie Johnson and I both have pre-teen children.  We recently recorded a Teleseminar for Hand in Hand Parenting called “Navigating the Preteen Years Without Tearing Your Hair Out”.  You can find details of how to listen for free at the end of this article.

Over the next few months, Julie and I are planning more work with parents of Pre-Teens. Today I’d like to share her recent post about some research into just what Pre-Teens and Teens want from us, each other, and the world. Continue reading

What Is Homework Good For?

School has settled in and I am finding myself having conversations with other parents about homework.   It is a huge issue for many children and their families.

The Problem: Sometimes, children come to homework happy to do it and keen to share what they are learning with us. However, many children regard homework as an unwelcome chore after a long day at school. If there is not unpleasantness and fighting about getting down to it, then once they start, it often seems to bring up big feelings.

And you? You are trying to get the dinner on, the baby bathed, and get your head around the maths problems your child is working on. You feel confused and unsure how to help, and before long, your child has exploded into yelling, tears and pencil throwing.

Get in touch with the teachers: If homework is a problem in your house, it is important to go and see your child’s teacher and see if there is something that can be done to help. Teachers generally welcome feedback on how it is going at home, and it may be that they can help find ways of doing the work which will make learning easier for your child. But in the end, you will probably find yourself having to deal with at least some homework coming home.

What is homework good for? There are many issues raised by homework which I won’t go into here except to say that few of the claims that are made for homework are well supported by research.*1 But I can tell you one thing homework is good for: upsets. Continue reading

Starting School – Packing the Backpack

Man delights in child in play

What Next? by Madeleine S Winter, CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 INT

You probably have a list of things that you make sure you put into your child’s backpack every morning before school. Their lunch, a hat, sunscreen, their homework or “show and tell”. Those things are all important, and whatever happens – don’t forget them, or it might mean you have to go all the way back home again to get them!

There’s something else that children really need in their backpack, also. And now I am talking about their emotional backpack. They carry this to and from school, too. We don’t always see this backpack, but we often feel it – when it is too full of hard feelings, accumulated through the day, or not full enough of the important feelings – a sense of being loved and connected and cared about. When this happens, this backpack gets really heavy, starts bumping into things, won’t fit in the back of the car. Continue reading