Helping Anxious Children with Back to School

By Tracey Dowdy

“My stomach hurts.” “What if I don’t make any friends?” “I hate the bus.” “What if my teacher is mean?” “What if I can’t find my classroom?”

If those statements and questions sound familiar or if you hear them more than once in the days leading up to the start of school, your child may be feeling anxious or stressed. It’s important that both you and your child know it’s common to feel anxious before a big change and transitioning from the carefree days of summer to the structured days of Fall is one of the biggest challenges a young child can face.

As parents, our first reaction is to protect our kids and help them avoid anything that causes them pain. But the key to helping our kids with back to school jitters is to be sure we’re equipping them and not rescuing them. Learning to manage emotions – even the unpleasant ones – is part of growing up and the more tools we can give our kids the more successful and emotionally healthy they’ll be.

If your child is anxious, the first step is to acknowledge it. Just as in adults, anxiety presents itself in different ways. Your child may seem irritable, sad, depressed or afraid. The key is to be honest about it. Open the conversation with something as simple as “You’re not yourself today. Is there something you’d like to talk about?” Be mindful that you might need to wait for your opportunity; the middle of a meltdown may not be the best time to address the issue. My kids often opened up at bedtime when I was tucking them in. There was something about the intimacy and the peacefulness of bedtime that made them feel safe enough to share their thoughts or fears.

Help your child to understand the difference between feelings and facts. When I was younger, I was terrified of sharks coming out from under my bed and I couldn’t sleep with a hand or foot hanging over the side. To my knowledge there are no documented cases of sharks lurking in pink shag carpeting but that didn’t make my fear any less real. Your preschooler’s fear of the loud, smelly bus or your fifth grader’s fear that they won’t make any friends feel very real to them, so it’s important to teach your kids that feelings can trick us and make us think things are much worse than they are. Worrying about the bus doesn’t make it unsafe and fearing you won’t have friends doesn’t mean you’re going to be lonely.

Teaching the 3 C’s can help them get those anxious thoughts under control:

  • Catch Your Thoughts – Think of your thoughts as floating in a thought bubble above your head like in cartoons. Now grab one of those thoughts as they float by.
  • Collect Evidence – Now that you’ve caught one – let’s say, “I won’t have any friends” – find reasons why that thought is or isn’t true. “My friend Carla is the same age and we’ve been together since grade one.” (Positive) “It’s a bigger school with more classes so we’ll probably get split up.” (Negative) “I made friends with Carla the first day of grade one.” (Positive)
  • Challenge Your Thoughts – Think of it like having a debate team in your brain. Take all the evidence you collected and weigh the good against the bad.

Another effective way to manage anxiety is to teach your child to focus on “what is” not on “what if.” Tom Petty was right – the waiting is the hardest part. Much of our anxiety builds up while we anticipate what could happen and results in thinking “What if no one sits with me at lunch?” or “What if I give the wrong answer if I’m called on in class?” Instead, teach your child to practice mindfulness, focusing on the present. Simple breathing exercises can slow down those anxious thoughts and help your child relax.

Avoiding stressful situations makes anxiety worse in the long run. Instead, experts suggest practicing “laddering,” which breaks down worry into small manageable pieces by setting small, easily achievable goals. For example, if your child is afraid of riding the school bus, take a walk to the city bus stop and watch people get on and off. When your child feels comfortable, ride the bus to some place fun like a park. The idea is to help your child work their way up to facing the fear.

When you see anxious feelings taking over, teach your child to how de-escalate those anxious thoughts. Using a grounding exercise like naming ten things in the room around them, a deep yawn and stretch that interrupts rapid breathing, counting backwards from twenty, picturing a happy scene, or slowing down and focusing on slow, deep breaths all help to scale back the situation.

Most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask for professional help. Roughly 8% of children and teens struggle with anxiety disorder, with girls making up more than half of that number. If your child can’t seem to manage those feelings and he or she is left feeling overwhelmed or helpless, talking to a counselor can help. Most counselors will use a family system approach and help you as a parent give the best possible support to your child.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Toronto, ON. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances and researches on subjects from family and education to pop culture and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

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