“My stomach hurts,” your child says in the mornings before school.
You have an idea of what’s going on. It isn’t a stomach bug or indigestion. Your little one is struggling with back to school anxiety. Transition back to school can be stressful for children. Even kids who are usually pretty easy get butterflies, and kids prone to anxiety get clingier and more nervous than usual.
Separating from parents and the comfort zone, a new teacher, classmates, managing peer groups, meeting academic expectations and the school routine starting up again can bring out fear and worry in your child. Back to school anxiety can make what should be an exciting time, worrying and uncomfortable.
When you see anxiety signs in your child, you have a tendency to think it will go away, you think it’s just a short phase. But serious untreated anxiety tends to get worse over time, because the child learns that avoidance works in reducing the anxiety, at least in the short run. If you continue to avoid the triggering of those fears, they only grow more powerful.
What can you do to support your kids and work through their anxiety with them?
Here are some helpful techniques you can try:
Do not avoid it and start talking about it:
When kids express anxiety about going back to school, do listen to them. Listening to your child and acknowledging his or her feelings will help them feel more secure. It can be a good idea to set aside time and a regular place to talk, some children feel most comfortable in a private space with your undivided attention. Remind them that it is normal to have concerns. Rather than dismissing the fears (“There’s nothing to worry about! You’ll be OK!) listening to them and acknowledging their feelings will help them feel more secure. Your job is to validate their feelings (“I know that’s tough”) and show confidence and trust that they can handle the situation. Don’t ask questions which implies that you expect your child to be anxious (“Are you worried about having Mrs. Greiner for Science?”) but check in with them in a more casual way (“Do you know what you'll be learning this term in science? Any cool experiments?”)
Give lots of attention and praise to any “brave” attempts to overcome their fears. “I love how nicely you prepared your school bag and were on time for the bus today!” “Great job on keeping your smile and positivity with you entering the class today!”
- Try some test runs in advance: If you expect your child to be nervous on the first day, go to the school several times before term starts, walk in the halls if you can, find the new classroom, sit on desks together and make them explore.
Take Deep Breaths Together:
Taking deep belly breaths is actually scientifically proven to help you slow your heart rate and calm down. To help your child, teach them how to take these deep breaths. Try to model the calm behavior you would like to see in your child. Start by having your child practice when they are calm. Have them place their hands on their belly and breath in while counting slowly to four in their head. They should be able to see their hands rise on their belly. Then, have them exhale for four counts. Repeat for up to 10 breaths. Then, repeat the cycle.
Invite your child to practice mindfulness. Through this exercise, your child will focus themselves on the present moment. This can help distract them from whatever is causing them anxiety. Here’s how it works.
- Ask your child to notice:
- 5 things they can see
- 4 things they can touch or feel (fingers on a pencil, legs on the chair, etc.)
- 3 things they can hear
- 2 things they can smell or taste (or things that they enjoy smelling or tasting)
- And to take one slow, deep breath
Teach your child how to take a mental vacation. For example, your child might remember as many details as they can about a favorite vacation experience. Whether it was paddling in a canoe, visiting the beach, floating at the swimming pool, hiking through the snow, or something different, your child can try to remember as many details as possible. Invite your child to focus on the mental vacation spot for a few minutes. They can close their eyes if possible.
Some children relax with a certain scents that they associate with calm. You can provide your child with a small case, such as a plastic Easter egg, in which you put a cotton ball that has a few drops of essential oil on it. Some good scents include mint and lavender. You can also put these scents in your child’s bedroom or calm places so that your child will associate the smell with calm.
Anxiety can create a lot of nervous energy. Tools like stress balls or beads to string can be helpful in certain situations. It will help them keep their hands busy and their mind calm. It can also be helpful to offer them an outlet for the energy. Find an after-school activity that your child is interested in and feels confident with, so it becomes a safe place for them.
It is also wise to talk with your child’s teacher so that they are aware and give some extra attention and you can find appropriate ways that your child can manage their anxiety in the classroom.
Anxiety symptoms that persist beyond the first few weeks of school and that seem excessive may require consultation with an expert. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can be very effective for kids who are anxious. In fact, research has shown CBT is the most effective treatment for reducing symptoms of severe anxiety. And unlike taking medication, the therapy gives children the tools to manage the anxiety themselves, now and in the future. It is based on the idea that how we think and act both affect how we feel. By changing thinking that is distorted, and behavior that is dysfunctional, we can change our emotions. A professional counselor or therapist that you can find in UrbanCircle Family Wellbeing category can help to better understand and the manage their anxiety.
It can be difficult to watch your child struggle with anxiety. But, by helping them develop coping mechanisms, you can help reduce some of the symptoms that it presents.
Wishing all our children a happy new school year.