Helping your child reduce anxiety about returning to school
Anxiety is something that everyone can struggle with – including children. Every fall, school-kids of all ages are hit with back-to-school jitters that can trigger new anxieties or worsen existing ones. Unmanaged anxiety can lead to a host of physical, mental, and social repercussions, so it helps to stave off worries at the start. Fortunately, parents can learn how to identify the ‘back-to-school blues’ and utilize techniques that help ease the apprehensions of students who are preparing to hit the books.
Common Back-to-School Worries and Concerns
Children and teens can develop many different types of concerns – many of them unique to their individual circumstances. However, there are certain anxieties that are especially common among school-aged children. Examples include concerns about:
• Attending a new school
• Not knowing the way around campus
• Difficult teachers
• Challenging classes
• Losing the class schedule
• Making new friends
• Finding someone to sit with at lunch
• Having the ‘right’ clothes to ‘fit in’ with peers
• Making a team or getting into a specific club
• Separation from mom and dad
Children who experience these or other concerns may react to their anxiety in one of many different ways. For example, young children may react to separation anxiety by clinging to a parent or regressing to ‘baby talk’ before attending school. Older children, on the other hand, might attempt to ‘avoid’ their problem in other ways – perhaps by faking a sickness or skipping school altogether.
Despite their desire to evade their troubles, school attendance is important and should be enforced. Aside from providing a strong education, school offers children the opportunity to challenge their fears, develop new friendships, master new skills, and earn recognition for success. So what can you do as a parent to reduce school-related anxiety?
When your child begins to focus on negative thoughts, redirect her thinking, and encourage her to counter it with something good. Perhaps it is the excitement of recess on a new playground or getting to play in the band. Whatever it may be, positivity goes a long way toward changing a child’s perspective.
Walk Through Possible Scenarios
If your child is worried about a specific scenario, try role-playing with different types of responses. This might mean coming up with talking points for making new friends or practicing how to respond to a bully on the bus. This helps your child recognize that he may not be able to change the circumstance, but he can change his response to it.
Foster Healthy Habits
It goes without saying, but a healthy mind needs a healthy body. Your child will think more clearly and process stress more efficiently with plenty of sleep and a balanced diet. According to the National Sleep Foundation, the average school-aged child needs between 9 and 11 hours of sleep per night. Since sleep deprivation has been shown to increase anticipatory anxiety, it is essential to ensure your child gets to bed at an appropriate time each night. Likewise, information from the Mayo Clinic suggests feeding your child breakfast before school that includes protein and complex carbohydrates like oatmeal.
In situations where a child will be attending school for the first time, the thought of being away from home for several hours each day can be overwhelming. Instead of waiting for the first day to experience separation, allow for controlled, ‘practice’ separation in the weeks and months leading up to school. This might mean spending time at a grandparent’s for the day or attending a day camp at a local church or organization.
Get to Know Others
Your child’s anxieties may be eased if she already knows the teacher or at least one other student on the first day of classes. If your school offers it, be sure to attend meet-the-teacher night or student orientation. If possible, find another student in the same class as your child and arrange a ‘play date’.
Short Goodbyes, Long Hellos
Saying goodbye is never easy – especially if you know your child is anxious about going to school. Avoid the temptation to drag out your goodbye. Instead, keep it short and sweet in the morning, and spend as long as you would like recalling the excitement of the day’s events in the afternoon and evening.
Know When to Get Help
It can take several weeks for a child to adjust to a major change, such as attending a new school for the first time. If you notice, however, that your child’s anxiety has not improved or has worsened, it may be time to get help from a therapist or counselor who specializes in pediatric anxiety disorders.