Back to School: Tips for Managing your Child’s Anxiety
As Fall starts to creep into view, it is important to begin thinking about how we are preparing our children to transition back to school. This transition period can be especially difficult for kids starting school for the first time, beginning at a new school, or kids that just have difficulty with change. In order to decrease stress, here are a few tips that might help you manage your child’s anxieties. One theme throughout is that you should not try to convince your child to feel a certain way; instead, make sure your child is heard, understood, and supported. As always, draw on your own strengths as a parent. You know your child best, so tailor your approach to meet your child’s individual needs.
Prepare Your Child
While preparing your child for school, it is important to spend some time talking about the upcoming transition. You’ll want to acknowledge that your child may have a range of emotions about starting school, including feelings of anxiety or worry. A common misconception is that talking about anxieties and fears with your child can exacerbate those negative feelings or, even worse, create worries that didn’t previously exist. This isn’t the case! Preparing a child to have big feelings will help them in the moment so that they are less surprised by those feelings. They’ll also be equipped with some strategies to help manage these feelings.
Here are a few ways to prepare your child for school:
- Have a conversation with them: This might look like sitting down two weeks before school and asking questions like, “How do you feel about starting school? Do you have any questions? What do you think it’ll be like to be at a new school?”
- Practice going to school: About a week before school starts, it can be helpful, especially for young children, to do a “practice” day so that their first day feels a little more predictable. You might say something like, “You know what might be helpful? Let’s practice going to school tomorrow! This way, you’ll get an idea of what it’ll be like. Maybe you’ll even have some questions that we can talk through along the way. How does that sound?” A practice day should mirror your child’s anticipated morning routine, including getting dressed, packing up their backpack, etc. On the drive or walk to school, it can be helpful to give them a general idea of what their day may look like, even bringing up opportunities to utilize coping skills. If your child has a specific fear or worry about school, this would be a good time to walk them through that as well. A lot of kids worry that they may feel sick at school. If this is the case for your child, take some time to walk them through that scenario. This might look something like, “If it does get tough what can you do? If your tummy hurts, who might be able to help you?” If possible, describe to them where their school nurse’s office is located. Having a plan can often calm a child’s worries and, if your child has a panic moment, they know where to look for support.
- Share a story: Another strategy that can be helpful is to share a story about a time you felt worried about starting school. This might look something like, “You know, when I was your age, I used to get really worried about the first day of school. I remember the hardest part was saying goodbye to my mom at drop off. You know what helped me? I started saying to myself, “It’s ok. I’m safe. This feeling will pass.” This validates your child’s emotions, reduces shame, and provides a sense of connection and understanding between you and your child. Also, in introducing a mantra, you are providing your child with a coping strategy that they can access in moments of fear or worry. It might even be helpful to practice saying this mantra with your child a few times and allowing them to make any edits or changes that feel right for them.
What To Do in The Moment
Even if you follow all the above steps, when that first day arrives, it is likely that your child will still experience big emotions. Of course, when your child is crying or screaming, it can feel terrible as a parent and it can be so hard to know what to do in the moment. Here are some strategies to use when your child is overwhelmed with a negative emotion:
- Validate their feelings: The goal here is not to convince them out of their fear or their worry but instead to connect with them and support them so that they know they are not alone.
- Remind them that they are safe: What kids are often looking for in moments of panic are for parents to assure them that they are safe. So, continue to remind them that they will be safe, and you will be there waiting for them after school.
- Keep the drop off short: The longer you linger and engage in repetitive conversation with your child, the longer they are stuck in this anxious state. Keeping the drop off short, even when your child is having a hard time, lets them know that you are not scared of their feelings and that you are confident that they will be ok and safe. Something you might say at drop off is, “It’s time to go to school and I know that you are feeling really upset. At some point this feeling is going to get better. It is time for me to go, so I'm going to give you a hug and a kiss. I know it’s going to be hard but you’re safe and I love you and I will be here to pick you up as soon as school is over.” Often, once you leave and your child is in their classroom, they will start to interact with their teacher and peers and their anxiety will eventually subside.
While returning to school can be a stressful time for young kids, employing these strategies can often help calm their nerves while simultaneously teaching them that not all change is bad. Use this time as an opportunity to instill confidence in your child, helping them become more resilient in the future!
If you are feel like the anxious behaviors aren’t resolving, reach out to one of our therapists. We are here to provide tools and resources to both you and your child.