For many children, going back to school is an exciting time. However, as with any transition or change, it can also be a time when children feel anxious or nervous about heading into a new year of learning, homework, and tests after getting used to the routine of a fun and care-free summer. This can be especially true of children starting at a new school or first-timers starting kindergarten. Common behavior for an anxious child prior to starting school may include clinging, crying, temper tantrums, complaints of headaches or stomach pains, withdrawal, and irritability.
Worry, anxiety, and the behavioral manifestation of these symptoms are common. Rest assured, however, because there are several ways to help your child get through back to school anxiety. As a leading Hermosa Beach therapist, I work with pre-teens, teens, young adults, and parents to help them cope with this transition. Read more below to find out some tips and tricks to keep anxiety at a minimum during back to school season.
Before we dive into ways to manage your child’s worries, it must be noted that it is crucial that your child attends school no matter how anxious they are feeling. Avoiding school can only increase their anxiety of the unknown and reinforce your child’s fears over the long-term, making it increasingly more difficult for him/her to attend.
Just like an adult, it is more difficult for children to cope well and adapt when they are hungry or tired. Furthermore, anxious children tend to eat less and have trouble sleeping. During this time, pay extra attention to their basic needs and provide nutritious snacks often, in addition to normal meals. It can also be useful to establish predictable routines for your child. This helps them feel secure in knowing what to expect and reducing the unknowns in life outside of attending school. These routines should include consistent morning, bedtime, and after school habits as well as eating schedules.
Encourage your child to express his/her fears rather than holding them inside by keeping an open door of communication. Be sure your child knows that you are there to listen and support them. Ask your child what is making him/her nervous and tell them that it is normal to have concerns. This helps to validate and normalize their fears. Younger children tend to feel most comfortable discussing their fears and concerns in a calm, private space where they have your full attention, while teens often enjoy slight distractions such as driving in a car or taking a walk.
It is common for children to seek reassurance that the bad things they are imagining won’t actually happen. However, often their fears include things that may actually happen, such as being called on by a teacher to answer a question or doing poorly on a test. Therefore, rather than telling them “Everything will be fine!”, discuss with your child some problem-solving techniques to deal with these situations if they do come up. For example, if they express a fear or concern say, “If (blank) happens, what could you do?” or “Let’s think of some way to handle that situation if it does arise.” Not only will this help calm your child’s fears as they now have a plan of attack if they do happen, but it also gives them the opportunity to learn how to cope with new challenges that may arise while at school.
Encourage your child to redirect their energy away from thinking about the negative things that could happen and consider the positive things that will happen. Ask your child questions like “what are three things you are most excited about to start school?” This gets their brain thinking in a positive manner about the upcoming school year and can refocus the way they anticipate their first day of school, helping to calm some of the nerves around it.
Although the first day of school can provoke your own anxieties, children often take cues from their parents of how they should respond to situations. The more comfort and confidence you can model for your child the better! It is best to be supportive of their worries but firm in moving forward. As your child leaves for school on their first day, say goodbye to them cheerfully and do not reward or give into negative behavior such as protests, crying, or temper tantrums. If they are experiencing any of these behaviors, again support their feelings and help them move forward. For example, ask your child, in a calm tone, “I can see that going to school is making you scared/upset/anxious, but you still have to go. Describe to me what you are worried about and we can talk about it.”
Back to school season can be tough for both children and parents. Even after following all of my tips and tricks above, it is normal for you and your child to still have worries and anxiety surrounding the return to school. If you would like to discuss your or your child’s fears and discomforts, contact me today by phone at 310-892-2572 or email me. I look forward to hearing from you soon and happy back to school!