Mom, I’m not sure I should have signed up for AP English,” says Adam, a high school freshman. “I’ve heard it’s really hard.” Adam, a smart student who doesn’t want to disappoint his parents, lacks confidence in his ability to keep up with the work required in his upcoming classes. His main fear centres on academics.
Adam’s younger sister, Avery, is entering junior high and she’s nervous about her new school environment. Avery doesn’t make friends easily, and many of her friends will be going to a different school than she. She worries about whom she’ll eat lunch with and whether or not she’ll have anyone to talk to on school mornings. Avery’s fears are focused on the social aspects of school.
As our kids head back to school, they have fears that range from finding the right bus after school to whether or not they’ll pass all their classes to graduate. A child’s personality, learning style, academic needs, social and emotional development, and prior school experiences contribute to their fears and how they handle them.
We can help our kids adjust and cope with whatever back-to-school fears they face with the following strategies:
Acknowledge the fear. When our kids recognize and put words to their fears, we can then help them cope. Questions from Avery’s mom like, “What are you concerned about as you start junior high (i.e., the lunch period, making new friends)?” will get Avery talking. As Avery expresses her fears, her mom can acknowledge them by saying, “I know it can be scary to start at a new school. Do you remember when we first moved here and how well you adjusted to your new school and new soccer program in the community?” She could also remind Avery of her wide base of friends in elementary school and encourage her to talk about how she made new friends in the past.
If a child has had a challenging or traumatic issue at school, it’s important to acknowledge the problem and help the child separate the past from the present. For instance, just because Avery experienced a toxic friendship last year that shattered her confidence doesn’t mean she can’t equip herself to manage stressful situations better in junior high. With our support and words of wisdom, stressful situations provide opportunities for our kids to practice life skills that will serve them well into adulthood.
Minimize drama surrounding the fear. Adam’s fear of failing Calculus might bring up memories of our own failures in high school. When these thoughts surface, it’s best to keep a lid on how much we say. Positive statements that remind Adam of his previous successes in difficult classes will help dissipate his fears. Brainstorming ideas, such as using a tutor, will empower him to get past his fear of failing Calculus.
Watching children struggle with fear sends many parents into rescue mode. Instead of helping children face their fears, the parent finds a way of escape. Adam doesn’t need to enrol in a different class because he’s nervous about Calculus; he needs reminders of how he has succeeded in the past and encouragement that will enable him to plunge through.
“It’s a wise parent who realizes not only that our children watch us and repeat our words, but they also take their cues about how to react to life from us,” says Sherry Surratt in her Thriving Family article, “‘Mom, I’m Scared.’” “If we overreact, we send messages of worry that can enable our children’s fears,” advises Surratt.
We hinder our children from the maturing process when we magnify the problem and take over to solve it. Facing fears and learning how to cope with stressful situations is a normal part of healthy development.
Teach your child to ask for help. In a new school environment, it’s likely that Avery fears getting lost in the halls; first-day anxiety can be relieved by teaching kids that help is only a question away. Teachers are prepared to help new students navigate large buildings with hard-to-find classrooms. Older students can also provide friendly guidance to newcomers.
School counselors are equipped to provide assistance when students need answers to more difficult situations. If Avery encounters bullying, asking for a counselor’s help alerts school administration of a problem that might need addressing on a larger scale and protects Avery from another’s unwanted behavior.
Reminding your kids that they don’t have to face their fears alone gives them the confidence to face a new environment and walk through challenging situations.
Help your child build resilience. Children who have a resilient attitude fare better with whatever life presents. You can’t predict every circumstance your child will encounter at school, but you can help nurture strong attributes in your kids.
The American Psychological Association offers these 10 tips to help build resilience in children and teens (apa.org/helpcenter/resilience.aspx):
Resiliency enables our kids to face their fears head on and gives them confidence to overcome them.
Back-to-school fears are real, and kids need help coping with what worries them. As parents, we can help our children adjust to this change and face their fears by modeling and teaching healthy development skills and coping strategies.
Gayla Grace, MA, has coached her five kids through an assortment of back-to-school fears.
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