If your child is naturally shy, introverted, or resistant to change, you probably won’t be surprised when back-to-school anxiety crops up a few weeks before school starts. And what if your typically fearless, hyper-social child suddenly starts to have angry outbursts or impulsive restlessness a couple of weeks before school starts? Could this be a sign of back-to-school anxiety?
Certainly. Transitions can be hard for children at any age, especially for kids who have trouble managing change. Sometimes the unknown can spark a child with a lively imagination to picture the worst. And elementary-school- aged children are growing and developing in leaps and bounds, which can often throw physical, mental, and emotional behaviors into an unexpected tizzy.
Regardless of your child’s usual manner, you might do the whole family a favor by expecting the onset of school to cause some degree of anxiety in your elementary student, whether this is their first year of school or the fifth. Being proactive at the first sign of school jitters can help.
Here are seven ways to calm anxious feelings before they become overwhelming:
1. Ask about feelings. Don’t assume your child is totally fine unless they say so. And even then, ask some questions. Try to frame a variety of feelings for your child to choose from. Say things like, “When kids start school, they sometimes feel excited, nervous, anxious, scared, or overwhelmed. What are you feeling?” Being able to express and describe the experience can often take the edge off. And don’t be surprised if you feel compelled to ask every day for several weeks until school settles into a familiar routine and emotions settle back down. If your kid says they are “fine,” gently question until you get a more detailed response.
2. Paint a picture. Take advantage of school tours and meet-the-teacher days to help your child know what to expect from school. Talk to your child about how nice and orderly school is. Describe how teachers and administrators are in charge, and how a scheduled routine will be followed. Make sure your child knows who to talk to if they have a problem or concern. Assuring your child that there is a plan and steady leadership in place can help them relax. If your child feels panicky, reassure them that they will quickly catch on to school routines, and then when you come to visit their school, they will be able to show you the ropes.
3. Keep the teacher informed. If your child is seriously struggling with anxiety beyond what might be considered first-day jitters, keep their teacher in the loop. Teachers are trained to handle every kind of situation that may come up in the classroom, and your child might respond more positively to input from other adults beyond their parents. If the situation does not improve after the first-day hurdle is cleared, consider getting a school counselor involved, as well. Trust that the school is behind your child and express that you all want your child to have a good time at school.
4. Prepare the launch pad. Your child will be comforted by tasks that prepare them for school. Resist the urge to do everything for them or shield them from the preparation process. Together you can gather lunch- making supplies, shop for school supplies, and select school clothes. These are all nice, concrete tasks that can bring an anxious child back down to earth. Why not create a 'getting-ready' checklist for the two of you and tick tasks off as they are completed?
5. Focus on the positive. Okay, your child is definitely nervous about school. There may be no way around it. But chances are good your child is also looking forward to some aspects of school. What about seeing their friends every day? How about taking the bus? Do what you can to prime the positive pot a bit for the first few weeks of school. Offer a special snack for school, a chance for them to watch their favorite show right after school, or a daily call to grandma to share their adventures. ‘Expressing the negative and embracing the positive’ is your new motto.
6. Practice the new routine. The week before school starts is an important rehearsal time to ease into a new routine. Get your child to bed earlier, wake them up before school will start, feed them well, and get them into the school-day mentality. Then before you send them off to play or do chores, say to them, “If today was a school day, it would be time to go to the bus stop,” to help your child envision what a school day will be like. Post the daily school-day schedule and go over it with them as the big day draws near.
7. Be extra calm yourself. If you are contending with your own separation anxiety as you anticipate sending your child off to school, discuss your feelings with understanding adults out of earshot of your child. Take part in all of the suggestions included in this article as a way to settle yourself down, as well as a way of preparing your child for school. Remind yourself that your child is resilient and strong and with support, they will adjust to change just fine. If you are too quick to jump in and mediate every situation your child encounters, you will be interfering with their opportunity to see what they can do for themself. So be there, be calm, but don’t hover. Model a you-can-do-it attitude, even if it’s not the way you actually feel in the moment.
Life is full of ups and downs, and so is school. Letting your child have academic challenges and victories will build character and healthy self-esteem. Enjoy surfing the waves together!
Author, journalist, and writing coach Christina has shed her fair share of tears after dropping her daughter off for her first days of school. Sometimes these tears surprised her, but eventually she didn’t need them any longer.
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