It’s the middle of August, and for the last week, my children have been lamenting about how it is almost back to school time.
For the most part back to school is a positive, exciting time for kids filled with new experiences and opportunities but with all the newness it can also be a source of anxiety. Young primary children often express worries of getting lost or missing mom or dad. Elementary aged kids often feel burdened with concerns about making new friends, wondering if their teacher will be nice and if the work will be too hard. Adolescents often worry about peer relationships and workload.
How will you know if your child is experiencing back to school anxiety? Children who are feeling anxious about school may be more irritable, whiny, or defensive. They may retreat into silence, or they may begin to ask more, often repeated questions. They may complain of headaches or stomachaches. More direct symptoms could include tantrums and refusal to attend school.
While it’s important for us to have open, honest conversations with our children about their concerns and feelings I urge you to approach the topic carefully to avoid planting any concerns that weren’t there, to begin with.
For example, my eight-year-old was in a school production last year and one of the teachers who was helping to prepare told the class that “feeling nervous on stage was perfectly normal and everyone felt that way.” Suddenly he was scared of having stage fright. We talked, and I explained that yes many people do feel nervous on stage and that was normal, but many do not and that was perfectly normal too. I told him that if it would help him feel prepared, we could practice some tools that could help him if he was feeling nervous. It turned out it wasn’t an issue for him at all but is a perfect example of how with our best intentions to make kids concerns feel valid we can plant ideas or concerns that were not there, to begin with.
So what can we do?
Watch for the signs. If you have begun preparing for back to school has your child’s behaviour changed? Have they started to verbalize any concerns? If you shop for back to school items together is it a feeling of excitement or does it turn into an unexplained frustration? Is there suddenly more tears, impatience, or sullenness?
If you’re not sure but suspect that something may be brewing for your child ask open ended questions that could easily be answered with enthusiasm or apprehension. What do you think back to school will be like? What is the first thing you think of when you think of school? If school was a colour or a sound what would it be? What three words best describe school? When your child is answering these questions, pay attention. Make the conversation fun and please don’t bombard your child with questions. For example, if you ask “what is the first thing you think of when you think of school?” you can follow up with “the first things I think of are…” or “when I was a kid, first things I thought of were…”
If your child has expressed they are feeling anxious about back to school here are some things you can do.
- Gain clarity on the source of the anxiety. Is your child concerned about logistics, separation, friends, work load, lack of free time? Again open ended questions are effective here. Go for questions that are not leading and can’t be answered with a yes or a no. Knowing the source of the anxiety helps to decide what tools your child will need.
- Self-check. Parents, it’s time to check in on yourself and make sure you are not passing stress messages to your kiddos. Your child needs you to be calm and confident in their ability to handle school.
- Empathy, empathy, empathy. Having faith that your child can handle school does not mean dismissing their concerns. Statements such as “there is nothing to worry about” or “you’ll be fine” are not helpful to your child. Your child needs you to listen and be present with them.
- Learn and practice some calming techniques before school starts. Often we get our kids tools but way too late. Your child doesn’t need to learn a new breathing technique or other coping mechanisms the first week of school. They need to be a master of that technique by the first day of school so that using it comes instinctively.
- Get the basics in order. Sleep, diet, exercise. Summer can be fun, but it often means late nights and extra treats, in the weeks leading up to school begin to reign it back in.
- Visit the school, meet the teacher, play at the playground or see if you can arrange playdates with school friends. The unknown certainly can increase anxiety so work on making the space as known and familiar to your child before school starts as you can.
- Foster connection with you. When a child feels secure, loved, and valued it provides a safe place from which they can begin to expand and explore. Take extra time to hug, cuddle, read together. Go for walks, watch movies together, do what ever it is your family likes to do that shows your child you are genuinely interested and engaged with them.
- Comfort objects. A comfort object can be anything. Ideally, it should be small enough to fit in a pocket or similar so it can easily go to school with your child. It could be a stress ball, a bracelet, necklace, or ring. It could be an aromatherapy inhaler, a coin or charm or perhaps a family photo. It’s job it is to redirect the mind when anxiety ramps up as well if it is a sentimental token such as a necklace or a ring it will help to reinforce their connection with you.
- Play what if…? Playing ostrich and sticking our head in the sand about possible challenges our child might face is, to be honest, irresponsible. If your child has ever had a perfect year without one single moment of conflict or tension, I want to hear from you! This kind of story would completely make my day. However, I think those numbers are slim to non-existent. The reality is when you take a group of people and put them together there will be issues. Let’s ask the question “What is the worst that could happen?” and carefully follow it up with “what would your plan be?” The goal of this exercise is not to dwell in all that can go wrong but to build strategy and resources so your child can feel empowered and prepared.
- Practice! Now that you have an outline of what could go wrong and how your child might handle it now is the time for role play! The first time doing anything is often the hardest so go ahead and get it out of the way.
- As a long term plan consider developing a mindful lifestyle. There are some immediate mindfulness techniques you can begin using right away such as this handy guide to mindful breathing, but mindfulness is so much more than a handy bag of tricks to make it through a rough moment it is a way of being.