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Helping Children Minimize Back-To-School Anxiety

By Katilyn Thomas

The start of the new school year is exciting for most kids. But it also prompts a spike in anxiety: Even kids who are usually pretty easy-going get butterflies, and kids prone to anxiety get clingier and more nervous than usual. Parents feel the pain, too: Leaving a crying child at preschool isn’t anyone’s idea of fun. 

Kids who normally have a little trouble separating from mom and dad will see their anxiety peak during times of stress or transition.The start of school may be especially challenging for kids who are entering a transition year — going into kindergarten, into middle school, to a new school. It can also be stressful if there’s a change in your child’s social support system — maybe a good friend has moved, or has a different teacher this year.

For most kids the new-school-year worries will fade and the anxious behaviors will be transient. The goal for parents is to be supportive without exacerbating your child’s worries. Here are tips for helping nervous kids have a successful transition back to school.

Take your own temperature

For parents, the start of the year can be anxiety inducing, too. The pressure’s on you to reinstate routines after the summer break and arrange for new activities and schedules, not to speak of facing the resumption of homework.

WIN recommends taking your own temperature to make sure you’re not passing on stress to your kids. It’s important not to take on more commitments than the family can handle comfortably.

Listen to worries

When kids express anxiety about going back to school — a new teacher, increases in homework, making a team, a friend crisis — do listen seriously.

Rather than dismissing these fears (“Nothing to be worried about! You’ll be fine!) listening to them and acknowledging your child’s feelings will help them feel more secure. And if they want to, you can bolster their confidence by helping them strategize about how to handle things they’re concerned about.

But keep in mind that kids often want to be able to talk about something they’re upset about without expecting you to fix them. Your job is to validate their feelings (“I know that’s hard”) and demonstrate confidence that they can handle the situation.

Do some test runs

If you anticipate that your child will be seriously nervous on the first day, it helps to give them time to get used to the new school or new classroom in advance. Take advantage of opportunities to meet teachers, tour the building or attend a gathering before the first day of school. If this isn’t possible, visiting the grounds and pointing out the entrances may help your child feel more comfortable on the first day. We know that exposing children to the thing they are afraid of, and practicing is one of the best ways to deal with nerves and fear.

Notice physical symptoms. 

Fear, stress, and nerves often show up as belly aches, headaches, or nausea. If medical reasons have been ruled out, it’s possible your child is experiencing their emotions physically. Practice daily diaphragmatic breathing and relaxation exercises to help them learn how to cope with the physical tension and decrease symptoms.

When separation problems persist

Leaving a child who is crying or whining at school is a tough thing for any parent to do. But most kids are pretty resilient and we don’t want to underestimate their ability to cope. Most kids recover quickly once mom or dad leaves.

We often want to protect our kids from strong, uncomfortable emotions. So we may be tempted to allow them to stay at home. But did you know that hiding away from our fears, actually makes them worse?

If your child’s teacher reports that they bounce back and participate enthusiastically in activities during the day, the best way to help them get more confident about separating from you is to praise the brave behavior they did show. For example, remind them you will be back to get them and tell them things like, “Great job coming to preschool today. When I pick you up I hope you’ll tell me something fun you did.”

If necessary, have a plan in place with a teacher or counselor at school that allows your child to take a relaxation break when needed, and then get back to class.

When Is More Help Needed?

Most kids adjust to the new school year within two to three weeks. If your child continues to be anxious, refuses to go to school or isn’t engaging in the classroom, ask your pediatrician for advice. Your child may benefit from therapy to discuss anxiety issues.

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