Kristine Buelow, MSSW

6 Ways to Deal with Back-to-School Worries!

September 10, 2019 By

School has started and for many families this time can be filled with excitement, nervousness, relief, and sadness.  As a parent, what are you feeling?  Are your kids coping with the new schedule change?  Back-to-school anxiety is a common thing for children, but with a few helpful thoughts and coping strategies, everyone can have a good start to the school year!

Nervousness is normal and worries are common, so questions are typical.

Kids will ask many different school-related questions; such as

  • Who will be my new teacher?
  • Will any of my friends be in my class?
  • Are my clothes or shoes OK?
  • Who will I sit with at lunch?
  • What if I miss the bus?

 

How To Deal With Back-to-School Worries!

Below are some general strategies parents can use to deal with back-to-school worries,

1. Health and Schedule. 

Nobody copes well when they are tired or hungry. Anxious children often forget to eat, don’t feel hungry, and don’t get enough sleep. Provide nutritious snacks and lunches for your child.  Take some time before bedtime to relax and turn off of the screens.  During this time, you also need to build in regular routines, so that life is more predictable for your child.

2. Encourage your child to share his or her fears.   

Ask your child what is making him or her worried. Tell your child that it is normal to have concerns. Before and during the first few weeks of school, set up a regular time and place to check in. Try not to drill your child with questions; instead, notice their body language and feelings.  Reflect back their own words and thoughts, so they can relate to their own language.  Some children feel most comfortable in a private space with your undivided attention (such as right before bed, or during mealtime). Teens often welcome some sort of distraction to cut the intensity of their worries and feelings (such as driving in the car or taking a walk).   

3. Avoid giving reassurance…instead, problem-solve and plan.

Children often seek reassurance that bad things won’t happen in order to reduce their worry. Do not assure them with “Don’t worry!” or “Everything will be fine!” Instead, encourage your child to think of ways to solve his or her problem. For example, “If [the worst] happens, what could you do?” or “Let’s think of some ways you could handle that situation.” This gives you the opportunity to coach your child on how to cope with (and interpret) both real and imagined scary situations. You will also be giving your child the tools he or she needs to cope with an unexpected situation that might arise.

4. Role-play with your child.

Sometimes role-playing a certain situation with your child can help him or her make a plan and feel more confident that he or she will be able to handle the situation. For example, let your child play the part of the demanding teacher or bullying classmate. Then, model appropriate responses and coping techniques for your child to help them calm down.

5. Focus on the positive aspects!  

Encourage your child to re-direct attention away from the worries and towards the positives. Ask your child, “What are three things that you are most excited about on your first day of school?” Most kids can think of something good, even if it’s just eating a special snack or going home at the end of the day. Chances are that the fun aspects are simply getting overlooked by repetitive thoughts and worries.   

6. Pay attention to your own behavior.

It can be anxiety-provoking for parents to hand over care and responsibility of their child to teachers, bus drivers, and schools. Children take cues from their parents, so the more confidence and comfort you can model, the more your child will understand there is no reason to be afraid. Be supportive yet firm.  When saying goodbye in the morning, say it cheerfully – once!  Ensure you don’t reward your child’s protests, crying, or tantrums by allow him or her to avoid going to school. Instead, in a calm tone, say: “I can see that going to school is making you scared, but you still have to go. Tell me what you are worried about, so we can talk about it.”  Chances are, your child is anxious about something that requires a little problem-solving, role-playing, planning, and/or involvement from the teacher and/or school.

 

Although it is normal for your child to have worries, it is crucial to make your child attend school. Avoidance of school will only increase and reinforce your child’s fears over the long-term and make it increasingly more difficult to attend.  Most importantly, anxious children and teens who miss school cannot gather evidence that challenges their unrealistic and catastrophic fears!

If it seems that the school anxiety is increasing, it may look typical or different many ways, such as tummy aches and headaches, tantrums or aggressive defiance, withdrawal from activities, sports, and friends, crying or never leaving your side, and difficulty sleeping.  School anxiety is heart-wrenching for parents, who tried every trick (bribery, distraction, yelling, grounding, physically carrying their child to the car) with no long-term solution.

School anxiety isn’t a case of ‘won’t’, it’s a case of ‘can’t’. It’s anxiety. It’s a physiological response from a brain that thinks there’s danger by going to school. Sometimes the anxiety is driven by the fear that something will happen to the absent parent, and sometimes it’s driven by nothing in particular. Whether the presumed danger is real or not isn’t relevant; many kids with anxiety know somewhere inside them that there is nothing to worry about, but their brain thinks there’s a threat and acts as though it’s real.

 

We humans are wired towards keeping ourselves safe above everything else. It’s instinctive, automatic, and powerful. This is why tough love, punishment, or negotiation just won’t work. If you were in a dangerous jungle, no amount of talking or arguing would keep you safe.  You’d fight for your life at any cost. School is less dramatic than a jungle, but to a brain and a body in fight or flight, it feels the same.

When you’re dealing with an anxious child, you’re dealing with a brain that will fight, wanting to keep him or her safe. It’s not going to back down because of some tough words or consequences.

Child and Play Therapists can help and support kids and families dealing with school anxiety with clinical interactions of psychoeducation, coping strategies, and cognitive restructuring.

 

If you feel your child needs help coping with school anxiety, don’t wait: contact us today to schedule your child’s first appointment!

 

Sources and Further Reading:

What is Anxiety – anxietycanada.com

How to Deal with School Anxiety – heysigmund.com

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Kristine Buelow, MSSW

Kristine Buelow, MSSW

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