Dealing With Back to School Anxiety

This article was first printed on page 11 of the August 8th issue of The Press.

Children can express anxiety very differently than the way adults do. In the weeks leading up to the first day of school be aware of signs of anxiety. These can include: irritability, argumentativeness, headaches, stomachaches, nausea, and restlessness. Younger children can become either clingy or distant toward you. The thing to look for is a change from their ordinary behavior. Dealing with their own, unique set of issues, older students and adolescents might become argumentative and confrontational.
            Anxiety is an unavoidable part of life. The goal is to teach the child how to successfully manage their anxiety over new situations. Here are a few pointers that professionals agree will help your child to cope with back to school anxiety:

            1. Talk with your child about their feelings. Provide your child with a safe atmosphere to ask and share their feelings and concerns. Too often we are embarrassed to discuss our fears with others. This teaches our children to feel guilty for their emotions and to keep them hidden from others. Make time to talk about their feelings.
            2. Children must be encouraged toward conversation. When you ask your child how their day was, don’t let it go at, “it was okay”. Asking the child specific questions about their day will help them to process their feelings. Be specific and persistent: “How did you like math class? What is one thing you learned?” “Whom are you seated next to?” “Whom do you like and dislike in your class?” Asking specific, open-ended questions will encourage your child to talk about their experience and feel invited to do so.
            3. Create a ritual. People of all ages take comfort in rituals; those familiar times that make us feel safe and signal a time for sharing. A ritual can be after-dinner conversation with your child, an after-school walk in the park, or a drive through the countryside. The important thing is that it is regular, familiar, and signals a time for sincere sharing.
            4. Realize that anxiety might not be recognized at school. Guidance counselors and teachers are often unaware of a student’s fear because students sometimes hide it until they are safely at home. Parents will see symptoms of fear and anxiety that might not be present in the classroom. It is important to make your child’s teacher and guidance counselor aware of their anxiety so that they can better address your child’s needs.
            5. Visit the school before the first day of class. Meeting the teacher and knowing the layout of the building will give your child a greater sense of control in the new situation.
            6. Invite classmates over for a “Back to School” party. This allows your child to meet and get to know their classmates before the first day of school. The more allies your child has, the more secure they will feel on the first day.

            Regardless of our age, fear of the unknown is an emotion that can be paralyzing. The best support a parent can offer is planned preparation and a strong sense of empathy.