It’s that time of the year when children across the country have been going back to school, young adults returning to their college campuses, and teachers adjusting to being in the classroom. Going from unstructured summer days to the routine of school can be challenging and somewhat jarring for the entire family, and this sudden shift may have brought up some feelings of anxiety, uncertainty, and overall nervousness that can persist.
It is also important to remember the mental health impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on young people — 76% of schools report more staff voicing concerns about students exhibiting depression, anxiety, and trauma. It is possible that children may be feeling increased anxiety to go back to a somewhat "normal" school year.
Children who are usually pretty easy-going might be feeling butterflies, those who are prone to anxiety may be acting more clingy and nervous, and kids who have had a change in their support system with friends moving away or starting at a new school may find it especially challenging. And all of this can be hard on parents.
There are a variety of strategies that we can employ as parents to ease anxiety and feel a little more ready for the new school year.
Check in with yourself
There is typically a lot of pressure on parents to reinstate routines after summer break, arrange for new activities and schedules, and keep kids on top of their homework. This can be especially challenging if children are struggling with anxiety as well.
One suggestion I give parents and caregivers of nervous children is to take your own temperature and make sure that you are not passing your own stress to your kids. In order to manage your own stress, you have to make sure that you are not taking on too much. It can be easy to get wrapped up in the back-to-school excitement and sign up for every activity but it’s important to be mindful of what commitments you are taking on as a family, feel it out, and make sure it is comfortable for you and everyone involved.
Listen to worries
All too often, kids will express anxiety as they get further into the school year— worries about a new teacher, increased homework, making or not making the team, or challenges with friends. Make sure to listen to these worries and acknowledge them. Acknowledging your child’s feelings will help them feel more secure.
Talking about it and guiding them through some problem-solving will also help them feel more confident. As parents , we cannot always fix problems for our children — rather, it’s our job to validate what they are going through (“I know that this is so difficult”) and model that we have confidence in them to handle their situation. Once they have tools and strategies to handle the things that they are concerned about, it’s likely that they’ll feel better.
Focus on the positive
One strategy that can be helpful is teaching our children how to reframe negative thoughts so that they don’t snowball and lead to anxious feelings. Reframing is also something that parents can practice to help manage their own anxiety.
For example, “I don't want to go to school today because I am going to do badly on my math test” could be reframed as "I am going to go to school and try my best on the test, and maybe I will do really well." “I never know what to do when my kid is worried” could be reframed to “I am doing the best I can as a parent and will ask for help if I don’t know what to do.”
Let someone know
There are times when it can be very clear that your child needs additional support, but sometimes it takes a little while to notice that your child is struggling. After listening to your child over the first few weeks of school, if something they mention feels like a red flag to you, it is important to let someone at their school know. Telling their teacher, an aide, counselor, nurse, or any other individuals who have daily interaction with your child that they are struggling will help keep them on their radar in case they need a little extra support.
Look for warning signs
Nervousness and anxiety can look very different in adults and in children. For children, these feelings most often manifest in physical symptoms like stomach aches and headaches. If you’ve ruled out a medical issue and the pattern persists, anxiety about going to school may be the cause.
Children may complain that they don’t want to go to school or don’t feel well as an attempt to avoid school. Avoidance of situations that trigger anxiety is the most common coping mechanism. But as parents, one of the most important strategies we can use to break the cycle of anxiety is to resist avoidance and continue to send our children to school. This may be very difficult, but if we allow children to avoid stressful situations, we are reinforcing that those situations are indeed dangerous or scary.
If a child continues to complain about physical symptoms, it is also important to investigate what might be causing anxiety. It may be helpful to reach out to a school counselor or other school personnel as this could be a sign of an anxiety disorder, or another problem at school.
In conclusion, this time of the year can be very stressful overall — even if your children have been back in school for weeks. It is important to remember that this is a healthy change in routine and structure that can be very beneficial for children and adults alike.
As parents, we just need to remember to have a plan, stay prepared, and not overextend ourselves with hobbies or activities. Regularly check in with yourself and your family members to make sure that everyone feels safe and comfortable, and try to focus on positives and stay present in the moment to enjoy the school year.
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