The school supplies have been purchased, the backpacks packed and the lunch menu set. Everything is ready to go–except for your anxious child.
Though some kids can't wait to get back in the classroom and see their friends, others have major anxiety. Read on to find out how you can help a worried kid beat those back-to-school jitters and have a successful start to the academic year.
The Common Mistake You Want to Avoid
When you first catch wind of your child's nerves, you might be tempted to say something like, "You will be fine! Don't worry!" This comes from a good place, but it likely isn't want they want to hear.
Similar to when you discuss work problems with your partner or complain about a social slight to close friends, you're not looking for a quick fix; in fact, there may not be one. Instead, you are looking for validation of your experience and your feelings about it.
The Child Mind Institute, a national non-profit centered around improving mental health in families and children, says anxious children are looking for the same thing when expressing their back-to-school fears. Their anxiety is real, and it's important that you validate it as both normal and understandable. By accepting their feelings, you will help them do the same, which will bring them one step closer to managing them.
Modeling Positive Behavior
Times of transition aren't just challenging for children. They're hard for parents, too. If you're experiencing your own anxiety about the back-to-school season, these fears could be reflecting in your child.
Children are more perceptive than we realize. Think back to when you were a kid–there's a good chance you can recount several times when you knew something was bothering your mother or father, even though they never said so directly.
Make sure to keep your own anxieties at bay when discussing the upcoming school year with your child. Questions like, "Are you worried about having [insert notoriously tough teacher] for science?" or even, "Is [insert your child's best friend] in any of your classes this year?" are well-meaning but can be triggering for your child. Try to keep your dialogue positive and discuss any fears you do have with your partner or another adult.
The more ease you model at home, the more likely your child will perceive there's little to worry about.
Practical Steps to Ease Worry
You're validating your child's concerns and managing your own, but what about concrete, practical steps to ease their anxiety? Let's start with the basics:
• Taking care of your child’s physical health will help their mental health. As the first day of school approaches, make sure they’re getting enough sleep, eating well-balanced meals, exercising regularly and enjoying time with loved ones.
• Identify a few specific coping mechanisms ahead of time for when your child feels overwhelmed. Depending on their age, journaling, yoga, meditation or even going for a long walk are all options.
• Plan a dress rehearsal for the big day. Many fears about back-to-school center around “what ifs.” What if I miss the bus? What if I don’t know where to go? What if I can’t figure out how to open my locker? Practice getting up at the correct time, waiting for the bus and showing them around their school if possible.
• For children with social anxiety, try to set up a few play dates with other kids before the first day. Other parents are likely noticing similar worries in their children and will be happy to meet up.
• Plan something special for the end of the first week. Going to a movie or getting ice-cream is a great reminder that life goes on, and there’s plenty to be excited about outside of school.
Back-to-school season may be stressful for some children, but that stress is manageable with the right tools. It's likely their anxiety will last only the first few days, but if it persists, consider contacting a school counselor or mental health professional for further insight.