Back to School Jitters
All children experience some kind of anxiety. Fortunately, anxiety can be useful in some situations. Anxiety can act as a safeguard in unfamiliar situations, helping children to proceed with caution and avoid trouble. The presence of anxiety is also fairly common in certain situations. Worries get triggered by new and unfamiliar situations, so worries about something like going back to school are completely normal. Many kids worry about whether they will like their teacher, have friends in their class, have friends to sit with at lunch, or be able to manage their new academic challenges. It is perfectly normal to be worried or anxious about new and different things. As parents, we can help ease the transition with some basic steps.
Establishing a morning routine a week before the start of school can go a long way in easing the transition on the first day back to school. Walking the route to school a few times before the first day, and shopping for clothes and supplies, is also helpful preparation. Talk to your child about what lunches he/she might like. Then, the night before school, decide on clothing, set up the backpack, and get the child to bed at a reasonable time.
Anxiety Signs & Symptoms
Children don’t always recognize the signs of their anxiety. When they experience common physical symptoms of anxiety (e.g. shaking, nausea, stomachaches), they understandably might think that there is something “wrong” with them. These thoughts will likely increase their anxious feelings. Therefore, it is important to teach your child about anxiety and how to recognize it.
Sometimes when we sense something is scary or dangerous, we automatically go into an alarm state. This can happen when there is a real danger, but also when something simply feels dangerous but really isn’t, such as giving a presentation in class, or going up to bat at a baseball game. Body alarm symptoms can include trembling, shaking, headache, shortness of breath – all contributing to a feeling of discomfort. It may also make it hard to think clearly. Often, children who experience these symptoms overly focus on them, which tends to make the symptoms increase, which in turn increases their anxious thinking about the symptom! Teaching your child that such physical responses in their bodies is a normal response to new and different situations can help them de-catastrophize the symptom. Deep breathing, or any other relaxation strategy, can also help children calm their body alarms.
Do’s and Don’ts
If your child is anxious, start by normalizing their fears. Make them believe that they will get past the problem and let them know you believe they can handle it. The saying, “A frightened captain makes a frightened crew” is fitting because children pick up cues from our own anxious behaviors. Yet, we have the choice to model for our children the confidence that they need to handle new and challenging experiences. The goal is not to eliminate anxiety, but to help our children learn to manage it more effectively.
Don’t allow your child to miss school just because they don’t want to go. It will only reinforce their fears. Anxiety is essentially a message that tends to overestimate danger and underestimate our ability to handle it. Thus, when we allow our children to avoid the things that scare them, we are actually increasing or reinforcing their fears. Avoidance may seem to help things in the short run, but it will only make the fear stronger over time. Getting our children to go to school will teach them that even though they are uncomfortable or fearful, they can handle it.
Telling your child not to worry or that their fears won’t happen, generally is not helpful. As parents, we often try to convince our child to “stop” worrying. Meanwhile worry is telling them the opposite, convincing them that they can’t or shouldn’t.
Instead, try validating and empathizing with your child’s fears by saying, “I can see that it is making you nervous to think about school tomorrow. I think other kids are worrying about similar things. If you don’t end up with any friends in your lunch period, let’s make a plan for how you could handle that.” Or “I know that you’re scared. It’s OK to be worried. I will help you get through this.” When we allow our child to express their fears, they are less likely to have to defend their position and thus are more willing to consider the situation with more perspective.
It can also be helpful to separate your child from their worry. Using language to help children see worry as a bully and to identify what it is telling them, allows the child to fight back. “It seems like your worry brain is telling you that your teacher will be mean to you. What does your smart brain want to say back to your worry bully?” Try not to do all the talking. Children must learn how to talk to themselves in ways that promote their ability to handle new situations.
As parents, we can also help children evaluate the likelihood or evidence behind their fear. Being scared is not an indication of how likely something is to happen, so we can help our children separate facts from feelings by encouraging them to explore their thinking. For example, many middle school children fear that they will get lost on the first day of school, be late to class, and get in trouble. It might be helpful to ask your child what makes them think that these thoughts are true, and what makes them think it might not be true, or to ask them to consider the worst case/best case/most likely outcome. These kinds of questions allow your child to take a step back and consider the facts versus their fearful feelings, thus often reaching a more reasonable and less frightening conclusion.
Another helpful strategy is to change their channel. If we are watching TV and we don’t like the show we are watching, we can switch to one we do like. Worry likes to demand our attention and then tends to grow when we pay attention to it. Thus, we can try to help children shift their thinking to what they might like about returning to school, rather than on only what they fear. Try asking your child to list their favorite subjects or the friends they look forward to seeing. If your younger child is especially nervous about leaving you, consider giving them a transitional object to take with them to ease their separation anxiety – perhaps a photograph of you, or anything that reminds them of home.
With younger children, once you arrive at school, leave quickly. Don’t hover. When we linger, we are reinforcing our children’s anxious thinking that they need us to be OK, and that they can’t handle it on their own. Ask yourself “Is my child safe?” and if the answer is yes, leave.
Finally, don’t forget to praise your child for their courage and willingness to face their fears!