At the end of each summer of my childhood, I’d get an aching feeling in the pit of my stomach. It was time to go back to school.
Because of my learning differences, I have trouble with writing, organization and processing information. School was like trying to swim in quicksand. I struggled so much in my classes and developed anxiety about almost every aspect of schoolwork. Summer meant salvation from the academic stress. But summer always ended.
In the weeks before the start of school, my parents thought the best way to help was to be relentlessly upbeat with me.
“I have a feeling this new school year is going to be different,” my dad would say confidently.
“We know you’re going to do way better,” my mom added.
“And it’s essential for your future that you try to get better grades,” they both said. “You can do it.”
I’d nod agreeably, trying to end the conversation and block it all out.
Behind my parents’ cheerful statements, they also had their own anxieties. My father, a successful doctor, confessed to one of my teachers that he feared I would never get to college. And my mom blamed herself for the fact I couldn’t get my act together in school.
My parents tried everything they could to help me academically. Each year, I got more support in my classes. I tried different tutors and programs. A few times they even had me switch schools.
With each change, I promised them: “I’ll do better this year.” Some of the changes did help. But deep down, I knew I couldn’t live up to the standard they set.
Eventually, the focus on school wore down our relationship. Some of my fondest childhood memories of summer are going to the movies with my parents and playing Ping-Pong with them. But those activities faded away as school started. Whenever we spent time together, the conversation eventually turned to schoolwork: “Shouldn’t you be studying?”
I reached a breaking point in middle school. I was failing most of my subjects. Thoughts of failure replayed over and over in my head, like a bad movie. My freshman year of high school wasn’t much better.
That’s when something started to click for my parents.
They started to realize my learning differences had nothing to do with me not trying enough. School would always be hard for me, no matter how much support I had. And acting like everything was going to be OK wasn’t helping me.
What I needed was for them to acknowledge and be open about my struggles. Thankfully, they started to do that.
In the summer before college, my parents sat me down. Over four years of high school, our relationship had changed—for the better.
“We know college is going to be really challenging for you,” my dad said.
“It’s not going to be easy, but we’re proud of your effort regardless of your grades,” my mom added softly.
That freshman year in college, I worked hard and got through my classes. I still struggled, but it helped that my parents were honest about my challenges. Their support gave me the self-esteem I needed to persevere, with far less frustration and angst.
They still wanted me to do well in school. They still encouraged me. But they never again denied my learning differences or placed an unfair expectation on me. It was less about my grades, and more about my journey with learning and thinking differences.
Recently, I spoke with my mom and dad about things they would have done differently during back-to-school season. They said their biggest regret wasn’t about my academics. It was about saying to me that everything would be fine when they knew it might not be. They told me they wished they’d understood earlier how hard it was for me. And I gave both of them a hug.
Read a child expert’s advice on how to help your child with back-to-school anxiety. Get tips on how to reduce jitters for the first day of school. And learn what not to say to a child with learning and thinking differences about the new school year.
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About the author
Beth Jacobson is a writer and disability activist with learning and thinking differences. She is based in New York City.