Susan Says: Surviving back to school anxiety and stress
It’s that time of year again and the start of school can bring excitement and anticipation, as well as anxiety, fear, and psycho-somatic complaints in children. Our culture has evolved in a way that puts a great deal of pressure and expectations on youth. New situations are difficult for many children. Going back to school is a filled with lots of new situations—a new classroom, teacher, classmates, schedule, and responsibilities. Think about how anxious you would be about starting a new job every year of your life and you will know what your child is experiencing as the school year begins.
Some anxiety about returning to school is typical and very normal in kids. Kids often have issues adjusting to a new schedule and may have difficulty falling asleep or even have nightmares at the beginning of the school year. Some children may cry and initially refuse to go to school often complaining of frequent headaches or stomach aches as well as other physical symptoms. They also may throw tantrums to avoid school. The physical symptoms are usually very real to the child–they are not “faking it.” These physical symptoms are caused by stress and are an avoidance reaction to an anxiety producing situation.
For most children, the anxiety dissipates within the first couple of weeks of school. However, kids who are more anxious in social situations are more vulnerable to experience continuing anxiety. The social stressors vary by child. For some, they fear speaking in class, asking the teacher for help, or reading in front of the class. For other children, fears focus more on peer relationships and making friends – especially for those entering middle school or high school.
This time of year, can also be very stressful for parents, because they must also get back into a structured routine – leaving behind the easy-going summer schedule. These stresses can easily increase family conflict and make the situation worse if you don’t have some awareness about how to reduce your child’s anxiety and help the family ease back into a routine. Here are some tips that will help:
- Talk to your child about how he/she is feeling about going back to school and validate your child’s emotions. Often, we try to calm our children by saying things like, “you’ll be fine. You’re not scared,” or “Don’t worry. It will be fine.” This is not helpful. Imagine if you were worrying about something and someone told you not to worry. Would it make you stop worrying? Usually this just makes a child feel that it is not okay to express emotions like fear. Instead validate your child’s feelings by saying things like “It’s okay to be afraid, but we all have to face our fears. What do you think would help you get through this? I know that you can be brave and do this! Remember kids often talk more easily on a car ride or in a relaxed situation, like going out for ice-cream or some type of treat.
- It’s also important to talk to kids about what specifically worries them. Are they afraid they won’t make new friends or get along with their teachers? Is the thought of schoolwork stressing them out? Are they worried about the bully from last year? It can be hard for kids to admit they are being bullied but parents need to ask specific questions and if bullying is happening there needs to be intervention with the school. Bullying behaviors are on the rise over the past several years and parents need to find out if this is part of a child’s anxiety. If you find your child’s anxiety is related to an unsafe situation, act.
- Help your child identify some positive things about returning to school. Ask them what the best part of their day was and find out what they are excited about – i.e. sports, seeing an old friend, etc. If you can help a child to balance the positive with the scary things and tap into some of their excitement about any aspect of returning to school, it will help them deal with their fears.
- Set up a morning routine at home to spend a few moments of quality time with your child prior to rushing out the door for school. Have a few minutes to talk and share their favorite breakfast. This may mean starting earlier to help children get out of bed and it will also give them some time to adjust to the day.
- Send your child to school with something special from home. This could be a little note of encouragement from you, a special treat for lunch, or anything that reminds them of home and expresses love.
- Over the first few weeks of school try to have something special for the child at the end of the day. This could be some type of an activity that you do together (like baking cookies or going to the park), or making their favorite dinner or snack. Children need time to talk about their day and share how things went. Remember you are working on celebrating anything positive that happened to them.
- Give your child lots of choices about small things – what to wear to school, what to eat for breakfast, which backpack to take, what they want for lunch, walking home, etc. For all of us, anxiety and stress make us feel out of control. Going to school is not optional, so find things that the child can control. Giving children some control over small aspects of their day can help them feel that they have some control over their own life, which can make going to school feel a bit less like a chore and decrease anxiety.
- Stay calm yourself. If you appear nervous or stressed about things, your child will feel more stressed about it. Children look to their parents to determine the appropriate reactions to situations. If a parent is stressed, the child will become increasingly stressed. Remain calm and positive about the return of the school year. However, don’t be false! If you are falsely chipper, your child will notice that and be uneasy. Just try to remain calm and regulate your own emotions.
- Tell your child about times when you felt anxious and scared and how you dealt with it. Children need to know they are not alone in being afraid and it is helpful for parents to share their own experiences and allow themselves to be vulnerable with the child about times when they felt anxious or hurt in social situations or afraid in school.
- Finally, DO NOT take your child out of school because of their anxiety or allow them to skip a day of school because of the anxiety–that just maintains your child’s anxiety and conveys that he/she really cannot handle the anxiety. Instead, you want your child to learn that they can manage anxiety and be brave. This will go a long way towards your child handling struggles later in life!
It can be difficult for parents to send their child off to school knowing they are anxious and scared – but remember that anxiety goes down naturally over time. A child who is very anxious in the morning will not remain at that level of anxiety all day.
It’s impossible to protect our children from the world and school is a big step towards their independence. With reassurance and patience, kids will make a successful transition back to school and learn to manage stress, which will be valuable skill for them throughout their lives.
Susan Mitchell is a licensed clinical social worker and is clinical director at Ascendant Behavioral Health, located in Lehi. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801-502-3913.