Back to School with an Anxious Child- How to Help
As a parent, one of the most challenging tasks we have is to support our child through their worries. It is a delicate balance of acknowledging their feelings, while also offering suggestions to work through anxious moments. The end of August can be a particularly tough time for children as there are so many upcoming ‘unknowns’.
- Who will be my teacher? Will they be nice?
- Will I have any friends in my class? Will my friends even want to hang out with me anymore?
- Where is my classroom? Will I know how to get to the bathroom from my new classroom?
- What if that annoying kid from last year who used to bug me is still in my class?
- Do I need new clothes? What if I can’t find anything to wear?
- What if we can choose our own seats but no one wants to sit with me?
- What if something happens to Mom or Dad when I’m at school?
- What if I miss the bus?
These worries can be intensified if there is some type of change in the social support system such as starting at a new school, or needing a different ‘safe’ teacher due to staffing changes. In addition, anxious thoughts can be intensified in response to a traumatic event such as the death of a family member, divorce, serious injury/illness, etc. that may have occurred over the summer.
What to Do:
What is challenging is that our child’s worries often create worries for us as parents. We want our children to be happy and feel secure, and when that is threatened, we can feel threatened ourselves. In these situations; however, it is important for parents do their best to stay calm and positive. Children often feed off of their parents’ emotions. Do your best to take care of yourself so you can model this for your children. For example, practice deep breathing, meditation, exercise or other calming activities with or around your children and explain how they help you feel better.
When your child expresses worry, be reassuring but try not to build up school as a “magical playtime”. Acknowledge that there will be things that will be hard at school, but that you will work together when they occur. The first step is helping your child understand they are safe to tell you about what is happening in their day at school. This may be most comfortable verbally, or some children like to keep a ‘secret journal’ where they can write about their concerns without having to always talk out loud. Your child may choose to ‘leave the journal’ on your pillow if they are upset about something and want to indicate a desire to talk about it. In addition to creating a safe space to talk, it is important to develop a vocabulary of emotions for your child so they can accurately describe how they are feeling. Talk about deeper emotions than ‘happy’ and ‘sad’, like feeling ‘lonely’, ‘anxious’, ‘disappointed’, or ‘overwhelmed’. There is research to suggest that the process of naming our emotions helps us to calm down, think more clearly, and plan next steps. Rather than telling your child that ‘everything will be okay at school’, try to problem-solve with them about how they would respond if some of their concerns were to happen.
Here are some ways to plan for and work through anxious feelings regarding the beginning of school:
- About a week before school start, begin the school bedtime routine so you are not dealing with both a tired and anxious child.
- Get things ready for school the night before, such as their back-pack and clothes, so that you are not rushed at the last minute.
- Give them their own alarm clock to develop responsibility for getting up
- Talk about how mistakes are normal and provide an opportunity to learn (e.g. through board games, sports, etc).
- Listen calmly to their concerns and don’t downplay them
- Model problem-solving behaviours in every-day life
- Model calming strategies such as deep breathing, yoga, exercise, talking it out, etc.
- If the school allows, ask if your child can meet their teacher before school starts. You can ask to see the classroom, lunch room, path to the washroom from their class, the gym etc.. If this isn’t possible, you can always take a walk around the schoolyard. Advance preparation helps ease anxiety. You can also take pictures during your tour of the school and schoolyard that you can look at with your child.
- Arrange for a “buddy” to help with the transition from home to school. This could be another student in the class, a senior student, a school volunteer, an EA etc. This person could meet them at door and walk them into class, maybe before or after the other kids are in their seats
- Ask the teacher to give them tasks first thing in the morning, maybe with another student, to engage in an activity so that they are activating cognition (thinking and doing) as opposed to feelings and anxiety
If you are experiencing excessive clinginess and school refusal (including physical symptoms such as stomach aches and headaches) that is persistent and lead your child to leave school early or refuse to go to school, you might need some professional help. A professional can help you, as a family, develop strategies and plans to support your child. School refusal can escalate over time and poor attendance can be detrimental for a child’s social skill development and overall academic achievement. Do not hesitate to seek the support of a professional if you are facing school refusal and are unsure of next steps.