The new school year is around the corner. This means you’re probably enjoying the last few weeks of summer vacation, starting back-to-school shopping, and anticipating the new school year. You may be wondering who your child’s new teacher will be (we all know the teacher/child connection makes a big impact on the year), how they will manage their schoolwork load, and whether they’ll be placed in the same class as their best friend. One thing you may lose sight of (unless they clearly express it) is your child’s level of anxiety before school starts.
Let’s define anxiety. Anxiety is the body and brain’s response to an anticipated trigger. Even a thought about a trigger that hasn’t happened can create anxiety! Many uncertainties and unknown factors are at play when starting a new school year, which may lead to what we refer to as - thought traps. Thought traps are simply thoughts about something that hasn’t occurred that are often negative or irrational. Here are some examples: ”What if none of my friends are in any of my classes?” “I know the teacher won’t like me.” “I’m terrible at math, so I know I will fail this school year.”
“I have nothing to wear on the first day of school.”
“I’m a loser.” “What if I don’t know where my new class is?” “I’m going to get lost when I go to the bathroom.”
Symptoms of anxiety are both physiological and behavioral. You may observe the following if your child is experiencing anxiety: changes in appetite, challenges with falling and/or staying asleep, stomach aches, increased irritability, more intense emotional reactivity, skin picking/hair pulling, and rumination or fixation (asking or talking about the same topic over and over).
If you notice some of these symptoms a few weeks before starting school, know you are not alone!
Here are some quick tips to help kids take control of back-to-school anxiety:
Re-establish household routines. Focus on consistent morning and bedtime routines first, at least one week before school starts. Predictability reduces anxiety. They can’t predict the answers to their thought traps, but they can expect that the bedtime routine will happen at a consistent time. Visual schedules (schedules with pictures) help to build a sense of safety and security because they establish predictability between transitions.
Practice calming strategies. These strategies regulate the nervous system so they can think a little bit more rationally (with your help). Some of these strategies include breathing techniques, progressive muscle relaxation, deep pressure (squeezing hands and fingers), drinking or splashing their face with cold water, yoga, or visualization. Our favorite apps to help build these skills are Calm Kids and Smiling Minds.
Schedule “worry time”. Now, this one may seem a little strange to do at first. We often think that talking about the worry could worsen it. In fact, the opposite can happen if we don’t talk about it. Your child may ruminate or internalize the anxiety, and it may manifest into physiological or behavioral symptoms. So schedule the worry time weekly or even daily. You can set up a worry jar, a worry doll, or a worry journal. They can write about or draw out their worries, and you can process their thought traps with them. During this time, you can also model how to rationalize or reframe the worry to help shift their thinking. This is definitely a skill that needs to be practiced!
Validate first before reassuring or rationalizing. Our initial reaction is always to reassure because we hate seeing our children feeling anxious. Child: ”I’m worried I won’t make any new friends.” Parent: ”Of course you will! Who wouldn’t want to be your friend? You’re awesome!” This seems helpful, but it can also be invalidating.
Start with validating: ”You’re worried you won’t make any friends and will feel lonely.
I would feel pretty upset if that happened to me.” Then move to reassurance or rationalizing: ”How many friends did you make last year? That’s right. You had a solid group of friends. Did you feel worried about making friends at the start of the year too? Totally! And then it got a lot easier.”
Seek counseling or psychological support. This is a great way to help your child consciously build coping skills. It helps to have an unbiased and safe individual to support you and your child. Check out psychologytoday.com to find a psychologist or counselor near you!
Finally, after following through with the above tips and strategies, manage your anxiety. How you cope with your stress is a huge predictor of how your child will cope.
You’ve got this, and so does your kiddo! Cheers to a new school year. Visit psychedaboutkids.com for more great parenting and child development resources!
Joanna Piekarski and Lara Higgins (Registered Psychologist and Child Mental Health Advocate) started Psyched About Kids (PAK) in 2016 because they are obsessed with human potential! PAK empowers parents with science-backed knowledge, strategies, and tools to solve our most pressing parenting issues today and make life a little easier, along with ongoing support to implement the desired change. Small actions over time can have an unimaginable impact on child growth and development for lifelong health and wellness.
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