It’s that time of years again, either you and your kiddos are adjusting to a new school year or it’s just around the corner. It’s inevitable that some degree of anxiety has surfaced or will in the future, especially with the roller coaster of COVID over the past year and a half.
I wrote this post a few years ago, however it all still applies. Everything comes from my experience as a former teacher and mother.
So whether things have been a piece of cake or more of a rocky road, check out this post. There are lots of great techniques to help your child through anxiety of any kind.
It’s That Time Again
It’s that time of year again, the summer is winding down and it’s time to begin preparing for back to school. Although this is often an exciting time, many anxieties can creep in as well. These can and will vary based on the age, temperament and situation of your student.
Indeed, the 7-year-old 2nd-grade boy is going to have a much different perspective than the 7th-grade middle school girl. The beginning of the school year can certainly be the culprit for increased anxiety for both you and your student. Add to that moving to a new school or changes in activities or circumstances within an existing school and the apprehension factor can multiply.
Generally, a little anxiety about heading back to school is par for the course, but it’s essential to be a bit of a detective with your child and recognize when his/her feelings are going beyond the typical anxiety and need additional support or intervention.
Last year three of my children began a new school. They went from a small private school where they were all in the same building to public school where they were all in separate buildings. My 6th grader went from having 300 children in her entire school from grades PreK-8th to having almost that same number in just her 6th grade class. To say it was a big change is an understatement!
It was extremely important for me to be continually checking in with my children and their teachers to see how they were doing with the adjustment. The back to school preparations were much more extensive last year due to the increased changes that both the kids and I experienced. At times it was exhausting, challenging and time consuming, but it was so worth it. This year all 3 kids are comfortable with their schools, have many friends in their schools and on their buses and the back to school prep has been a breeze!
Every Child is Different
Although my preteen loves new and exciting, she is a very sensitive child who struggles to adjust to change. New is fun until it isn’t anymore. It carries a level of anxiety that she has a difficult time recognizing and expressing. Her anxiety and insecurities generally manifest themselves as opposition and withdrawal after the initial “high” and “honeymoon” wears off. Of course middle school brings its own set of insecurities and internal changes anyway, so this can be the recipe for the perfect storm especially for sensitive children.
On the other hand, you may have a child who stuffs her feelings and endures her worries silently. I have one of those too! Quiet and crying are her go-to coping methods and she generally won’t share what is on her mind until she is totally beside herself or I coax it out of her. Unlike daughter #1 who is very open about her feelings, daughter #2 tries to avoid sharing hers at almost all costs. It is especially important for me to constantly be checking her pulse and engaging her in discussion, giving numerous opportunities to share her heart.
Then you have the child who confidently walks into the school seemingly without a care. He has not talked about anything bothering him and appears to be calm and ready for the new adventure. But then you notice that his uncertainties manifest themselves when he puffs himself up in front of others (adults and peers alike) in order to overcompensate for his lack of internal confidence and peace.
Children are like snowflakes, no two are the same. One of our jobs as parents is to study our children and get to know them at deep levels. When there are multiple children in the family, it is easy to fall into the “parent everyone the same” mentality. It seems the most logical, fair and practical. Plus with the inevitable “it’s not fair” complaints that we hear from our children, it can sometimes be the easiest way to go.
However, I believe that parenting each child the same does a disservice to them and us. Of course there are some standards and principles that exist across the board without exception – no jumping on the furniture, no sweets before dinner and being respectful to others. This is healthy and very appropriate. But when it comes to helping our children work through challenges, individualized approaches tend to be more effective and connecting between you and your child.
So How Do I Help My Child?
- The first and most important thing you can do to ease your child’s back to school anxieties is to work through your own.
Kids feed off of our energy, emotions and attitudes. Even if we aren’t directly sharing our anxieties, children pick up on them. Remember, the vast majority of our communication is nonverbal. In an airplane, we are told that in the case of an emergency, we are to secure our own oxygen masks first before helping our children or anyone else around us. This is because we can’t help anyone if we aren’t breathing properly. The same is true with our kids. We can’t help them to work through something if we are struggling with it ourselves. A wonderful gift that we give our children is focusing on our own holistic health so that we can be the healthiest version of ourselves for them. Sometimes we have to “act as if” for a while until our feelings follow our actions.
- Talk to your child and LISTEN.
Study your children, be a detective to investigate all you can about them. Record it somewhere so you don’t forget and then you can also keep a record of strategies tried, how they responded, challenges and victories. I have found this to be extremely helpful. Ask open-ended questions, not ones that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”. Sometimes just talking about their anxieties and truly feeling heard and validated is all your child needs. Be sure not to negate or criticize any of their concerns or dismiss them with a quick solution or pat answer. Empathize, get in their shoes and connect with them right where they are. Once you find out their anxieties, commit to problem-solving TOGETHER. Making your child part of the solution is very empowering and impactful for them and they usually come up with some really great stuff that we wouldn’t think of. Resist the urge to go into “fix-it” mode.
- Brainstorm possible solutions to their concerns and problems and then make a plan.
Remember, if it is a problem or concern for your child it needs to be given attention. Employ their help in brainstorming ALL possible responses to their anxieties and perceived problems. Make a list including all ideas that you and your child come up with. Don’t worry about practicality or feasibility at this point, everything goes on the list. After you have a comprehensive list, you and your child go through it together and discuss what may work and what they want to employ. Try to let your child do most of the work, resist the urge to jump in, give them time and space to think through and verbalize their solutions. Then come up with a plan(s) together and discuss implementing it.
- Role play.
If any of your child’s concerns include interacting with others, once you have your list of solutions, pick a few and act them out. Help them come up with strategies and wording they can use in the situations which cause them anxiety. Having a plan along with practicing its applications often goes a long way in easing those worries. This is also a great time to talk through and practice for any hypothetical situations that are on your child’s mind.
- Love on your child in their love language.
Children who are filled up on unconditional love at home are typically more stable, secure and adjusted. Fill them up in a way that speaks to their hearts and is meaningful to them. Give them a little extra TLC during periods of higher anxiety and transition, like back to school. For more information about speaking your child’s love language, check out Gary Chapman’s book here.
- Prepare ahead of time.
Buy school supplies and clothes in advance. Develop some plans and routines with your child(ren) for school mornings, afternoons, activities, homework and anything else that would be helpful for your family. Talk about and practice them so the first run through is not on the first day of school. Organization and writing things down and posting where everyone can see them can be extremely helpful for all.
- Find out as much information as you can ahead of time.
The old saying, “knowledge is power” really applies here. Knowledge can also help to comfort worries. Generally most schools provide classroom and teacher assignments prior to the start of the school year. Communicate with other families to see if any of your child’s close friends will be in their class or on their bus. If your kiddo has specific questions for a teacher, see if there is a way to find out the answer. When at all possible and appropriate, have your child (with your help and encouragement) make those contacts. It could be as simple as reaching out to the band teacher to find out if they know what day your child’s weekly lesson will be on. For the middle or high school student, finding out who is in their lunch period or where their locker is located can do a great deal in helping them take a sigh of relief from their concerns.
- Tour the school.
Even if it’s not a new school, taking a tour to familiarize or refresh your student with the building is often very helpful. Find key locations such as classrooms, bathrooms, cafeteria and lockers and practice moving from one place to another. For the middle or high school student, practice switching classes and opening lockers using their combinations.
- Read books and share personal experiences.
Knowing that you’re not alone in a given situation or with the feelings you have can be tremendously healing. Reading stories or books about students going to a new school or feeling nervous about the start of a new year can go a long way in soothing your kiddo’s worries. If you and your child want to go a step further, make up a story of your own about the topic. A great way to connect with your child is sharing how you handled school situations and how you felt when you were younger. Meet them where they are, show them you can relate.
- Coach your child in positive self-talk and affirmations.
Be a teacher, cheerleader and encourager. Help your child to pick a few affirmations that they can repeat to themselves. Encouragements can be written on post-it notes and placed on mirrors and other locations. They can be written inside notebooks or folders so your child can see them throughout the school day. Make up fun songs, poems or stories including them.
- Stay involved over the summer.
Make the effort to connect with school friends throughout the summer. If there are opportunities to participate in school functions or activities, get involved. Swing by the school library if it’s open during the summer, attend the back to school picnic and participate in the summer reading challenge.
- Stay patient and calm.
As parents, it is often very difficult to see your child experiencing discomfort, especially when the cause is something difficult for us to relate to. We want to take the pain or talk them out of it using our best parental rationale. But the thing is that your child is not a mini adult, we can’t reason with them the way we do with our peers. Our kids respond from an emotional place and don’t have the maturity or wisdom to view things from our perspective. We need to give our kids the gifts of respect and the dignity of their own experiences and feelings. Trying to rush them to a place of comfort usually backfires and sends a message that we are dismissing their anxieties and just trying to make them feel better for our own convenience or comfort. It can take a while for some children to adjust to the new speed of school. Give them time. Resist the urge to ask pressure producing questions. Better yet, keep questions to a minimum, even the old standby “How was your day?” Believe it or not, many kids actually hate that question and find it very pointless. Sharing about your day and just giving time for your student to share about theirs if they choose tends to be more effective. Add margin to your schedule so you are available when they want and need to talk. Let them set the pace.
- Communicate with school staff and reach out for additional help.
Talk to other parents to learn about their experiences with back to school. Read articles and research ideas. Contact the teacher and share what is going on and tell them about your family’s situation. Develop a team approach to better help your child. Find out if there is additional support at school for your child. Contact the school social worker or guidance counselor and find out if there are any activities or programs available to help your child transition back to school. If the anxiety continues to persist after the first month of school, you are finding it impairing your child’s daily functioning or you are at your wit’s end, reach out for more significant help from your pediatrician or a children’s therapist. You know your child best and have the best pulse on the situation, if you feel things are getting unmanageable or not improving, give you and your child the gift of additional support.
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