Back-to-School can be a stressful time for parents and children. The start of school can be exciting in many ways – seeing friends again, getting a new teacher, and extracurricular activities – but it can also bring anxiety and nerves for many children. It is not uncommon for children to feel excited and worried about school at the same time! Social worker Katie Hurley said in her article “Anxiety in Children: Helping a Child with Anxiety with the Back to School Transition” that, “Anticipatory anxiety is common among kids with anxiety disorders, and it can begin weeks before the first day of school. The anxious thought cycle that occurs as the transition nears can include worries about learning and understanding new classroom rules, establishing a relationship with a new teacher, meeting academic demands, internalizing a new classroom routine, getting to classes on time, making friends, finding a place to sit at lunch, and completing homework, to name a few.”
Even if your child has not been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, they may experience some degree of anticipatory anxiety around the start of the school year. Anxiety sometimes looks a little different in children than it does in adults. According to Dr. Liz Matheis, your child may exhibit anxiety through (1) agitation, (2) restlessness, (3) refusing to go to school, (4) tantrums, (5) headaches and stomachaches, or many other behavioral and physical symptoms. Especially when children are starting at a new school, transitioning from one level of schooling to another (i.e., moving from elementary to middle school), or going back to a school where they have experienced bullying, it is important for parents to understand their child’s experience and support them. It is important to recognize that your child experiencing anxiety around the start of the new school year is completely normal – when you start to think about all school entails, it makes sense that children would feel nervous about the transitions they are experiencing! Anxiety is a normal part of life and is only a problem if it begins to get in the way of your child accomplishing their tasks and doing the things they want to do. So, what can parents do to help their children cope with the anxiety of starting a new school year? Below or some tips and tricks that you can try out as the new school year approaches:
- Normalize Your Child’s Experience
Let your child know that it’s okay that they feel nervous about the new school year. Validate their emotions of fear, worry, or sadness that summer is over. There may even be an opportunity for you to share stories of times you were nervous about school! Try to really listen to your child’s concerns and talk them through these challenges instead of brushing them off with a comment like “it will all work out” or “you’re worrying too much”.
- Create a Coping Plan or Kit They Can Use at School
When your child anticipates feeling anxious in a certain setting or situation, it can be empowering to plan with them around what they can do in-the-moment to cope with their anxiety. Help your child come up with three things they can do in the moment to help cope with their anxiety. For example, (1) Box Breathing, (2) Progressive Muscle Relaxation, or (3) Recite a Mantra. Kids may also benefit from creating a small sensory coping kit that they can place in their backpack for times they feel anxious or overwhelmed.
- Prepare as Much as Possible
If you notice your child asking a lot of questions about the school and the school routine, prepare and practice as much as you can. Leading up to the start of the school year, do a “trial run” of the morning routine to help your child know what they need to do to catch the bus on time. If possible, go to the school and let them learn where their classroom is and how long it takes to get from class to class.
If you notice that your child is having more anxiety than usual or it looks like your child could use some extra support, we can help! The therapists at Crossroads have extensive experience working with children, teens, and adults experiencing anxiety. Contact us today!
Written by: Emily Janes, Therapist Intern, from Virgina Tech. University, Marriage and Family Therapy Graduate Program. She specializes in working with children, adolescents, adults, and families.