Believe it or not, a new school year is upon us. The return to school has always caused a wide array of emotions. For some kids, going back to school is exciting, but for others, going back to school seems to cause a spike in anxiety.
Based on conversations that have been happening in my office and what I know of anxiety, I anticipate there to be even higher levels of anxiety about returning to school this year as compared to other years. Thanks to the pandemic, the past year of school was anything but normal. This means that returning to school this fall carries even more uncertainty with it, and uncertainty leaves the door wide open for anxiety to waltz in. In addition to the normal stressors of adjusting to a new teacher, new classes, and a new routine, this year students may feel more concerned about being in school for longer hours than last year, being away from their families after so much time together, social interactions after a year of reduced contact with others, and pressure to keep up in class after a year of hybrid or distance learning. In addition, there are still a fair amount of uncertainties about the pandemic, and kids are feeling those.
At times, anxiety is easy to spot, but sometimes, it may not be as obvious. Anxiety might look like physical complaints such as headaches or stomaches. (Always check with a pediatrician to rule out underlying medical problems). It may also look like crying or irritability. Sometimes anxiety shows up as problems with falling asleep. However it looks, addressing anxiety is the key for reducing it.
Most kids will adjust to school within the first month and their anxiety will decrease, but there are some important things parents can do proactively to help ease the transition.
1. Acknowledge the feelings and allow space for your kids to talk.
When your child vocalizes a worry about the new school year, do not dismiss it. All too often I hear parents say things like, “You’ll be fine. You love school. There is nothing to be worried about.” Statements like this actually increase a child’s anxiety. Try something like, “It’s overwhelming to think about all of the new things you will be doing at school” or “I can see that you’re worried. Going back to school is a big deal. I’m here to help”.
Perhaps the most important thing a parent can do is to give your child space to process their worries without the fear that you will be dismissive. Acknowledging the feeling helps your child to recognize what is happening within them and for the emotion to serve its purpose. Communicating a sense of understanding (empathy) helps to build connection.
2. Get back into a routine.
Routines give kids a sense of safety and provide structure to the day. They also help to make things more predictable which can help to reduce anxiety. Remember that uncertainty leaves the door open for anxiety, whereas predictability seems to protect against it. If your kids have been staying up late and sleeping in during summer, start adjusting their days to reflect their bedtimes and wake up times of a school day. Set clear expectations about bedtimes during the school year. Healthy sleep is crucial for a healthy mental state.
Practice the drive to school. Walk through the schedule. Start to adjust their routine to look more like a school day.
3. Help your child develop some coping strategies.
There is nothing worse than the feeling of being paralyzed with anxiety. Coping strategies are meant to reduce the intensity level, so giving your child a few things they can do on their own when they notice the anxiety is immensely helpful.
Practice some deep breathing exercises. Twenty seconds of deep breathing can reset the amygdala which is like a fire alarm that sends out the fear signal in the brain. Learn about progressive muscle relaxation, and practice it together. Try some different yoga poses or do some jumping jacks. Movement, like deep breathing, can also turn off the fire alarm in the brain. Help your child create a plan for what to do when the worry starts to feel overwhelming.
4. Talk about the things that could go well during the school year.
Sometimes the worries seem to be all consuming for a kid, and it can be hard for a worried kid to think about the positives. A new school year can bring about some exciting things, but they might be overshadowed by the worries. Talk about the good. As a parent, you can help with this by asking questions like:
- What are you most excited for at school?
- What do you think will be the most fun subject to learn?
- What friends are you excited to see?
- What is something good that might happen at school this year?
5. Give your child words of truth and help them remember bravery and strength.
When the worry level is high, kids often forget the inner strength that they have. Remembering times they have been brave in the past is helpful because in a moment of anxiety, those things are forgotten. Talk about times in the past where your child has overcome something hard. Help your child remember that he or she is stronger than anything the worry monster might throw his or her way. Without dismissing the fear, instill a sense of confidence that your child will be able to overcome.
Of course there will be times when it may be hard for your child to feel brave. Help your child memorize a Bible verse (or more) that speaks about fear for times like these. Equip them with words of truth to combat the worry. Then, when they do not feel strong or brave, they have some powerful words to fall back on. I love verses like these:
- Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. – Isaiah 41:10
- The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? – Psalm 27:1
- Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go. – Joshua 1:9
- But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. – Isaiah 43:1
You can even find ways to practice being brave ahead of the school year. This might mean calling to talk to a friend that your child has not seen for a while or ordering food at a restaurant instead of having mom or dad do it. Come up with a list of ideas for ways to practice being brave.
6. Talk with someone at the school.
If you believe that your child will really struggle to transition to school, it can be helpful to let someone at the school know ahead of time. Getting to meet the teacher or getting to talk with someone else inside the school building can make the transition a little bit easier. It is important for the school to know if your child struggles with anxiety so that they can offer support during the school day.
7. Manage your own worries.
Kids are incredibly perceptive to a parent’s emotions. If you are worried about the school year, chances are your child is able to pick up on that, and this will only add to their own anxiety. When you ask questions to your child about school, make sure these questions are not a reflection or a projection of your own worries. Practice your own coping strategies and reach out to someone for help, if needed. Modeling how you manage your own worries teaches kids what to do with their own worries.
So there you go! Seven strategies that hopefully decrease the anxiety level of this new school year. If you think your child is struggling with back to school anxiety and it does not seem to be going away, it may be time to consider reaching out to a mental health professional. Anxiety responds well to treatment. Left untreated, anxiety actually gets worse and can create more difficult problems with school. These strategies are a great starting point, so give them a try!
Heritage Counseling Center will launch another round of our BRAVE anxiety group for kids ages 10-14 in September. This counseling group could be a great option if your child seems to have a higher level of anxiety about school. You can find out more information on our website at http://www.heritagecounseling.com.