5 Tips for Back-to-School Anxiety
It’s that time of year once again! Back to school ushers in supply shopping, teacher meetings, orientations, and that happy re-orientation to bedtime and early morning routine! Often with back to school preparation, many kids share a similar dread in anticipation of the school year start-up. Resistance may feel strong and can begin to wear on parents. However of note, starting a brand new year can usher in significant anxiety and fear for a child. A new teacher, new class, or a whole new school for some can be incredibly daunting and scary. Fears of potentially getting lost, not finding the right class, not knowing anyone in the class, not fitting in or being accepted, or not doing well academically are all realistic worries that can certainly overwhelm and burden a child. So while it may be tempting to respond to their resistant behaviors and temperamental attitudes with shouting and stricter demands, what they may actually need is some guidance in managing the anxiety they may be facing. Here are 5 tips for addressing the anxiety across different domains:
Tip #1: Address the physical.
Believe it or not, lack of sleep has a strong correlation to increased anxiety and depression. New research on this has recently led therapists to begin incorporating sleep studies and sleep training into their treatment plans with clients. As such, a solid and consistent bedtime routine is imperative not only for a child’s academic success, but also for their mental health. Likewise, healthy eating and meal planning is also essential in providing them the physical fuel that will keep their mental state flowing smoothly.
Tip #2: Address the mental.
So much of anxiety is triggered by a negative mental state. When a child focuses on all that could potentially go wrong on the first day of school, or how the entire school year may be a catastrophe waiting to happen, they are literally awakening their body’s stress response system, which could potentially send them into full panic. As you speak with your kids about going back to school, ask them about what they fear and help them to see all the positives they might be missing. Still validate their worries as real and scary for them, but encourage them not to become consumed with the negative “what if’s.” Instead reframe the negatives into positives; for example if they see their classmate list and don’t recognize a single name, express enthusiasm for all the NEW friends they will get to make! Keep finding ways to boost the start of school as fun and exciting.
Tip #3: Address the emotional.
Fear is often the typical emotion children face when going back to school. Again, helping them find and rehearse the positives can help assuage fear. Attending orientation, meeting classmates ahead of time, and touring the school to find their classroom are also other avenues that can help to alleviate the fear of the unknown.
Separation anxiety can also be a another difficult adjustment for many kids. While it is often linked to younger kids new to the school experience, I have worked with clients in middle and high school who still battle it even at their older age. I tend to see it surface often during family transitional periods. Family moves, divorce, during bereavements, or even economic and financial struggles can cause a child to feel worried and on edge about leaving their parent or parents. Navigating structural changes in families (death or divorce) can cause a parent to feel as though they are just treading water to stay afloat; so adding in separation anxiety can overwhelm even more. For this, continue loving your child and reaffirming that you will see them in a few short hours. It may even help to give them something they can hold onto during the day when they are missing you (a photo, keychain, or other memento). Let them know your love is in that memento and it goes with them all day. They can touch it whenever they need to.
Tip #4: Address the spiritual.
For those in faith tradition, Bible verses on courage are an excellent tool for your kids to learn and memorize. My son’s favorite verse to recite when he gets scared is Joshua 1:9 “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.” We say this together over and over on the way to school. Prayer is also an incredible avenue for leading your children toward boldness. A great de-stressor can be teaching them that God is ultimately IN control and that they can go to the ONE IN CONTROL at any point when the day feels out of control.
Tip #5: Establish routine.
Last but not least, establishing a consistent routine is also an effective way to curb anxiety. Children thrive when they know what to expect because unpredictable changes can cause a child to feel unsafe and insecure. Truly not all changes can be avoided, but the more consistent and predictable life is for a child, the safer they feel. You may even notice that forgetting an element of the routine can initiate stress and worry (such as forgetting to brush teeth or turn off night lights before leaving). This structure is also an excellent way to instill self-discipline in a child, which is an essential life skill. In preparing for a new school year and for the coming changes, talking through the routine in advance, explaining expectations, and even practicing the routine 1-2 weeks in advance can prepare your child in making a seamless adjustment during the first few weeks of school.
While some measure of fear and anxiety can be expected for most children returning or starting new at school, some kids may hit a deeper level of anxiety that can become life-controlling (poor functioning at school, crying when dropped off that does not relent after the first couple of weeks, or refusing to go to school altogether). If you find that your child is not responding to the above tips for managing anxiety, you may want to consider getting them some extra help. A licensed therapist can help get to the root of what may be driving the anxiety, and can also teach specialized anxiety management skills that are tailored to the needs of your individual child. Otherwise, good sleep and nutrition, focusing on the positives, validating their fear and helping them to manage it through dialogue and experience (orientation and meet the teacher), consistently loving and supporting them through initial bouts of separation anxiety, establishing routine and using prayer and scripture can all be excellent ways to help your child readjust to the new school year and reduce anxiety. Best wishes to you all as we gear up and kick off the new school year!