Back to School Anxiety How to help your child or teen!

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Anxiety leading up to and during the first few weeks of school is common for children and teens. While some children are excited about the prospect of being with friends and navigating the challenges of a new year, others are plagued with worries and other stressors. Balancing schoolwork with extracurricular activities, exams, public speaking, making new friends, bullying, or making a big transition, such as going from elementary school to middle school or middle school to high school, may be significant sources of stress and anxiety for many children and teens.

For most, anxiety is a normal, adaptive response. It alerts students and motivates them to address important needs. For example, anxiety about an upcoming test may cause some students to work harder in preparing for the exam. Despite some of the benefits of anxiety, many students may find their anxiety difficult to tolerate and may need some additional support around this time of year.

Here are some tips for helping your child with back-to-school anxiety:

1. Acknowledge their anxiety. Telling a child “don’t worry” or “everything will be fine” is often not helpful in reducing anxiety. It is more helpful to acknowledge their anxiety and let them know that you are aware of it. Children and teens feel more secure in dealing with stressful situations when they have others that are aware of their challenges. It helps them feel like they do not need to carry the burden alone. This also opens up the line of communication, so your child feels safe sharing their fears in the future.

2. Identify and understand specific sources of fear and anxiety. Ask specific questions to identify the things your child is most worried about. For example, you may ask “what three things are you most worried about?” This also helps the child/teen to identify their own specific concerns, instead of having undefined anxiety that can’t be addressed. Identifying specifics also helps you to communicate that you have heard them and are aware of their challenge. If your child is unable to name the things that are the most worrisome for them, have them tell you any three worries they have, or the three most recent things that have worried them.

3. Focus on the positive. Once your child feels acknowledged and knows that you understand their worries, they are better able to look to more positive aspects of returning to school. You may ask them things like “what three things are you most excited about?” or “what are you looking forward to?” Helping them to shift their focus and think about the positive aspects of school may have a dramatic effect on their motivation and feelings of distress.

4. Build coping skills. Once you have identified the specifics of your child/teen’s worries, you are now able to provide coping assistance. Teach and practice effective methods for dealing with stressful situations. You may role-play anxiety-provoking scenarios. Play the part of your child and have your child play the part of a demanding teacher or teasing peer. Modeling such things as taking a breath, slowing down, and thinking through responses may be particularly helpful. As they watch you deal with the situation, they learn skills and feel as if you really understand their challenge. You may also help them with creating a school agenda or calendar to help them practice time management, planning ahead, and balancing schoolwork with extracurricular activities.

5. Maintain communication lines. It is less important that you have a solution to your child/teen’s challenge than it is to be open and receptive. Taking the time to let them know they are important and that there is no problem that you would not be willing to hear, no matter what, sets your child up with a resource they can draw upon throughout the school year. If they continue to struggle, they are less likely to feel helpless, as they feel they have a resource to draw upon.

6. Engage with, not against, crying. Many parents feel it is their job to repair negative emotions. Things like crying may be viewed as needing remediation. However, crying can be cathartic, as it releases tension. Also, allowing your child to cry may lead to a more receptive mood for talking and sharing once they have calmed down. What you can do is provide a soothing and sympathetic presence for your child, comfort them, and let them know that their feelings are important. Let them know it is OK to cry.

7. Seek help if needed. Though back-to-school anxiety is a normal experience for most students at one time or another, some children may experience more debilitating and problematic anxiety. For example, if your child experiences major changes in friendships, mood, sleep patterns, appetite, attitude and/or behavior, this may be a sign of more serious challenges. For these children, the help of professional psychologist or other mental health professional may be valuable.

For other helpful tips or to receive updates on important mental health topics for children, like my Facebook page.

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