Transitioning back-to-school can be a new year of opportunity to start fresh, make new connections, and broaden horizons. It can also bring on a great deal of anxiety. This period means new teachers, new classmates, and potentially, new environments. While there is a lot to look forward to, there are also many frightening realities. This can bring on fear and even horror for some children. Some are terrified of school shootings, other bullies, or even getting sick. Reflecting on the times we live in, some children have to participate in active shooter drills on their first day. If your child is anxious on the first day of school, they are not alone. They may need you now more than ever. Here are five ways to help your child cope with back-to-school anxiety.
Let them know they can talk to you.
Children who struggle with anxiety may seem like they are worried or stressed out all the time. While you may not be a therapist, there are things you can do to alleviate their anxiety. It is easy to pinpoint when some children are worried and anxious, but for those who are good at covering it up, it can be difficult to discern when they are struggling with discouraging thoughts. These kids can project such confidence that we do not see the signs when they are in great need. For a chronically anxious child, it helps when they feel like they can just vent sometimes.
Ask your child what is making him or her worried. Tell your child that it is normal to have concerns. Before and during the first few weeks of school, set up a regular place and time to talk. Those struggling with anxiety may not want to share what they are dealing with. However, it helps them know that they can talk to you whenever they need anything. If they follow up on your offer, they are permitting you to love them at their most vulnerable point.
Let them know it is ok to cry.
Before your child goes off to school, be prepared for tears. The first day of school can be especially terrifying and overwhelming. Your child must know that it’s ok to cry. Hold them, offer them tissues. You can even wipe their tears away. Take time to listen to what they are most anxious about and share what you remembered feeling on your first day of school. If your child knows that you were also anxious about going back to school, it can help them connect and elevate their stress a bit.
Learn the things that bring down their stress.
When your child is coping with back-to-school anxiety, you can help them by tapping into the things that help them de-stress. Figure out what they enjoy the most and what activities reduce their stress. It might be playing a board game or doing an activity outside. You can use these tools to distract his or her mind at least for some time.
Problem solve and plan.
Children often look for reassurance that bad things won’t happen to bring down their worries. Instead of simply reassuring them with “Don’t worry!” or “Everything will be fine!” encourage your child to think of ways to solve his or her problem. One great example is thinking through, “If (the worst) happens, what could you do?” or “Let’s think of some ways you could handle that situation.” Doing this will allow you to guide your child in coping with and interpreting these scary situations.
Be mindful of what you say and do.
Sometimes children, particularly older children, want to be left alone when they are coping with anxiety. If they want to be by themselves, you should give them space. Some alone time can give them the space they need to work through their thoughts and come down from their anxiety. You can check-in, but there’s no need to be overbearing. They will call on you when they know the time is right.
Also, be mindful of the things you say. Some parents think that saying things like “stop thinking so much” and “it’s all in your head” will help children get over their anxiety, but these are some of the worst things you can tell a child dealing with anxiety. It undercuts their stress and pain. For a child going through it, it feels real, and it is real to them, no matter how small you think their concern may be.
Children who are struggling with anxiety can find letting things go difficult. Telling them not to worry and that it’s going to be ok may ease some of their stress, but not all. Your child will benefit when they know you’re in their corner, supporting and loving them through this big, and sometimes frightening transition. They may not acknowledge it at that moment, but they will appreciate you in these moments, more than you could ever know.