8 tips for helping your child with back-to-school anxiety
With the start of a new school year, many students, ranging from pre-k to college, often begin to feel anxious. Going back-to-school often goes along with many stressors. Academic demands, balancing schoolwork with extracurricular activities, exams, public speaking, making new friends, bullying, or making a big transition such as going from elementary school to middle school or from high school to college can be sources of stress and anxiety for many students.
It’s important to recognize that anxiety can be a normal, adaptive response. Anxiety about going back-to-school can be beneficial; as it can keep students alert and motivate them to do their best. For example, anxiety about an upcoming test may motivate some students to work harder in preparing for the exam. Despite some of the benefits of anxiety, many students may find their anxiety difficult to tolerate and need some additional support around this time of year.
Here are 8 tips for helping your child with back-to-school anxiety:
- Validate the anxiety. Hearing, “Don’t worry! Everything will be fine!” doesn’t really help anyone feel better when they’re anxious. One of the most helpful things to relieve your child’s back-to-school anxiety is to simply acknowledge it and the fact that their anxiety is real for them. This also opens up the line of communication, so your child feels safe sharing their fears in the future. Stating something like, "It can be scary going back to school after being away for the summer," and offering a hug can help soothe your child and help you and your child connect in order to address the anxiety (see next tip).
- Identify the specific sources of fear and anxiety. Ask, "What three things are you most worried about?" Making a specific request can help your child sort through a confusing range of fears and feelings that are the source of their anxiety. If your child is unable to name the things that are the most worrisome for them, have them tell you any three things, or the most recent three things.
- Focus on the positive. After acknowledging and identifying your child’s fears, have them focus on the positive by asking, "What three things are you most excited about?" Most students have things they honestly enjoy about school, but these positive feelings can often be outweighed by more negative feelings. Focusing on the positive brings the good things back into the spotlight.
- Practice makes permanence. Instead of, “practice makes perfect,” I like to say, "practice makes permanence," and in this case you will be helping your child practice effective coping skills. Once the sources of your child’s back-to-school anxiety are identified, you can practice effective ways to deal with them through role-playing exercises. For example, you can discuss possible anxiety-provoking scenarios and play the part of your child while they play the part of the demanding teacher or bullying classmate. Or give them a school agenda or calendar to help them practice time management, planning ahead, and balancing schoolwork with extracurricular activities. Don’t forget, you can model appropriate and realistic responses and coping techniques for your child. For example, paced breathing and balancing work and play.
- Take care of the body to take care of the mind. As a parent you can support your child and model for them health habits that can soothe our body's nervous system, which is activated when we are feeling anxious. For example, having a bedtime routine that allows for ample sleep, eating regular balanced meals, and incorporating joyful movement or exercise are all parts of taking care of our physical well-being, which in turn helps us take care of our mental well-being.
- Be receptive. Keep the lines of communication open and let your child know that they can always talk to you, no matter what. Remember that you do not always have to have a solution to their problem, you can just listen and validate their emotions. Sometimes just talking about things out loud with someone else can make problems seem less threatening. Having an open line of communication and building rapport with your child can also allow you to be more aware of a serious problem your child may be dealing with.
- Do not fear crying. Crying can be cathartic, as it flushes out negative feelings and releases tension. Although it is difficult to see your child crying and your first instinct may be to fix their problem and help them stop as soon as possible, allowing them to cry often leads to a more receptive mood for talking and sharing. This does not mean that you shouldn’t provide a soothing and sympathetic presence for your child, but let the crying run its course.
- Know when to seek help. Back-to-school anxiety is normal, as most students experience it at one time or another. However, if your child experiences major changes in friendships, mood, sleep patterns, appetite, attitude and/or behavior it may be a sign of a more serious issue and your child may need professional help, such as a visit to the school counselor or finding a licensed therapist in your area.
Here’s to a thriving school year!