03 Sep Tips for Managing Back to School Anxiety
Back to school season – for some parents, it’s “the most wonderful time of the year” (do you remember that commercial too?). However, for those of us with anxious children, the back to school season can be seriously tough. Children and teens who regularly experience anxiety often struggle with changes and transitions, and switching suddenly from summer mode to school mode is a significant change (even more so if they are switching schools or dealing with new situations at home simultaneously). Returning to school often leaves them with a lot of unanswered questions, such as: Who will my teacher be? Will I have friends in my class? What if I get lost and can’t find my classroom? Teens might also be worrying about taking on new responsibilities, balancing school with hobbies or part-time jobs, and beginning to think about their future beyond secondary school, on top of the regular back to school concerns.
While it is normal to have some fears about returning to school, for an anxious child these fears can become overwhelming and place stress on the entire family. If you are struggling to help your anxious child through this back to school season, here are some strategies that might help you ease the stress for your child – and yourself!
- Establish a routine. Children and teens who struggle with anxiety often benefit from established routines. For younger children especially, it can help to slowly ease into or begin a back-to-school routine a few days before school actually begins. Ensure that they are eating healthy foods, maybe making lunches similar to what you would give them for school lunches, and that they are getting appropriate amounts of sleep for their age or individual sleep needs. I suggest starting to build a routine with them at least a week prior to the start of school, if at all possible.
- Talk to your child. Validate their fears, listen to them, and establish a routine or ritual where they can openly discuss their concerns with you. For example, teens are more likely to open up if you are doing something with them, such as going for a walk or taking a drive. Making it a regular thing can help keep you connected and encourage them to open up to you without the pressure of a sit-down conversation.
- Familiarize them with the environment. Take your child to the school, especially if it is a new school. You could walk or drive past the school a few times, or even spend some time together making use of the school grounds if possible (soccer? tag? duck-duck-goose?). Get them acquainted with their new surroundings so that it doesn’t feel so overwhelming.
- Be prepared. Come up with a plan so that your child feels prepared for their first day or week. Have them describe their fears, and walk through how they could manage each situation if it did occur. This will help them to feel empowered rather than frightened. Or have them imagine other possible outcomes. When children/teens are anxious they often think of the worst case scenario – help them see that the worst case scenario is not the only possible scenario.
- Provide healthy distractions. If your child is focusing on their anxiety, and you are struggling to help ease their worry or help them think through it productively, try to provide a healthy distraction until they are able to reach a more relaxed state. Encourage them to think of other things, come up with as special end of first day snack or dinner, ask them about what they are excited about with returning to school (seeing friends, playing on the playground, the lunch cafeteria).
- Parents, watch your own behaviour. If you are also worried or nervous about your child’s first day this will have an impact on them. Practice your tried and true self care techniques to help ease your own worries, or try to use some of the above techniques on yourself. Sending your child to school can be just as stressful for you – if you ignore your own needs, you won’t be in a good position to help your child. Get your oxygen mask on first!
- Say goodbye and leave. This just may be the hardest thing to do, especially for first time parents dropping their children off. Saying goodbye several times or returning after you have left will not be helpful for your child. Rest assured that most of the time, your child will be fine without you – maybe not instantly, but it is perfectly normal if it takes them some time.
Written by Bliss therapist, Tammy Benwell. This post originally appeared on The Coach House Blog.
Tammy Benwell is a Registered Social Worker who holds an undergraduate degree in Social Work from the University of Waterloo and Master’s degree in Social Work from Wilfrid Laurier University. She believes in fostering a collaborative, therapeutic relationship within which clients are best able to direct their own care. Tammy’s philosophy is best described as one which helps clients understand their role and their ability to achieve their desired happiness. In addition to providing therapy to individuals, couples, and families, Tammy’s work has also involved finding community supports for clients in distress, assisting with life transitions, and enhancing effective interpersonal communication styles.