Back to school anxiety is incredibly common in children, teens, and even young adults. Summer break comes and goes so quickly and as much as that break is needed for children, it can be too long. Too long without routine and structure as well as too long for their minds to start manifesting irrational, intrusive worry thoughts around school starting again. Some common school stressors for children include a new classroom with new teachers, meeting new peers, anticipation of homework, anticipation of test taking, fear of being alone at lunch or recess, fear of standing out or being “different” in some way, fear of being bullied, riding the bus, pressure to be “perfect”, separation from parents, navigating a new school (if applicable), as well as fear around using a locker and getting to class on time.
School anxiety is one of the most common concerns I treat within my practice and so I thought it would be helpful to share some of the ways parents can assist their children during this potentially difficult transition.
1. Allow your child the space to express how they are feeling. If they are anxious, scared, or sad do not tell them “to get over it”. Instead, allow them the space to communicate what their specific concerns are. Also, validate their feelings. Let them know it is normal to feel a variety of emotions this time of year. This will allow for them to have practice verbalizing their emotions instead of holding in how they feel, which will increase overall anxiety. This will also allow for them to feel as though they are being heard, thus increasing the likelihood they will continue to share their emotions in the future. Lastly, this will normalize their feelings as well. Children often feel as though they are the only ones going through something, when in reality what they are experiencing is typically quite common.
2. Next, help them identify their specific triggers. They may have a general feeling of anxiety or fear, but might not know why. This is especially common in younger children as they often struggle to pinpoint specific triggers, but this can also happen with adolescents and teens as well. If they are able to identify their triggers, then they can better prepare for and cope with those triggers. Often times when parents ask their children what they are worried about, they get “I don’t know” as a response. This can be incredibly frustrating for parents as you are trying to help, but feel as though you do not know where to start. If this happens to you, stay calm and do not become frustrated. Instead, validate that it can be hard to pinpoint triggers and assist them in walking through their day until they can identify a potential stressor. For younger children, sometimes they are better able to express themselves through art. So, asking them to draw a picture of their worries may be more helpful for them.
3. Help them identify coping mechanisms to reduce their anxiety levels. Some helpful strategies include deep breathing, using a stress ball, talking, coloring, counting to 10, listening to music, meditation, yoga stretches, exercise, and journaling. Depending on how intense the anxiety symptoms are, it may be helpful to write these skills down on an index card, piece of paper, or have them put the list of skills into their phone (if applicable depending on age). That way, if anxiety strikes, they have easy access to the information and do not need to think about it under duress.
4. Assist them in identifying support people in the school environment. Who can they talk to if they become triggered? Where can they go? Help them establish a plan ahead of time so they don’t feel stuck in fear in the moment. This can also be written out, if applicable, so that they have easy access to the information. Support people in school can be teachers, guidance counselors, school social workers, school psychologists, a principal, or a school nurse. Also, peers can serve as supports as well. If they have a friend or friends they feel safe with, talk with your child about how they can utilize their friends if needed for additional in-school support.
5. Talk to their teachers and other support staff ahead of time. Let them know your child is experiencing some anxiety around school to ensure they are adequately able to serve as a support for your child.
6. For middle school and high school students, it may be helpful to go to the school ahead of time and have them practice using their locker and walk through their schedule. I always suggest keeping the schedule and a map handy to visually reference so that they are not fumbling in the moment to access the information, thus increasing the likelihood of anxiety or panic. This can even be done after school starts as well, during after school hours or weekend hours.
If the anxiety your child is experiencing increases throughout the school year and begins to impact their academic, social, or emotional functioning you may want to talk with their teacher about additional supports which can be provided by the school.
Also, outpatient therapy is a wonderful way to help children reduce school stress and overall anxiety as well. Mental health professionals who are trained in working with children know how to help children identify triggers, learn and practice coping skills, as well as provide a safe space for children to talk openly and honestly about whatever may be on their minds.
As parents, the most important role you hold is that of a support to your child. The transition back to school is not only a challenge for children but parents as well. So, make sure you are also taking care of yourself and your needs during this hectic time as well so you can best support your child during this transitional time. Remember, the beginning of the school year is typically a time of stress and chaos, but it is temporary and once the adjustment period passes, things will likely settle down for you and your family!
I would LOVE to know what spoke to you today and encourage you to comment below and share with me!
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