Helping Kids Cope with Back to School Anxiety
15 ways to help children of all ages calm the jitters
Colin was starting 6th grade in a new school. At an orientation event, he became visibly unnerved as he struggled with the combination on a sticky locker. "He was concerned that he wouldn't be able to open his locker with only four minutes between classes," says mom Lynn Brown. (Names have been changed to protect privacy.)
Colin's fear is surprisingly common, and so is his apprehension about the beginning of a new school year. Most kids, even excited ones, experience a few butterflies in the first weeks. And the source of such uneasiness is not always obvious to parents.
Age, experience, and temperament all determine a child's level of worry. Young children with little experience outside the home may have separation anxiety. "Being in the care of adults other than their parents can be initially stressful for some children," notes Deb Cockerton, a child and youth behavioural counselor. These youngsters also worry about practical matters, such as finding the bathroom and getting on the right bus.
When they're a bit older, children worry about whether they'll have friends in their class and where they'll sit at lunch. Cockerton says older tween-age students are concerned about how they will fit in with their peers and how they will do academically. Additional stressors include the onset of puberty and issues like cyberbullying, body image and athletic ability.
Some worries are not obvious to parents. Kerry Norris, principal and longtime educator, says he has had little ones who are afraid to flush the toilet in the loud echo-prone bathrooms. And older kids who are beginning to measure themselves against peers, may feel humiliated if they wear the "wrong" clothes or come to school with a "nerdy" haircut.
Major transitions can cause feelings of insecurity, even if a child has previously done well. Brown says that Colin was "extremely successful and a model student" during his elementary years. Yet, as a kid who thrives on routine and predictability, it took time for Colin to adjust to the new academic expectations, the more complicated schedule, and the pre-teen social dynamics of his new school.
Signs of anxiety
Kids express anxiety in many ways. Some are vocal and quite specific about their concerns. But more often it is a child's behaviour that indicates his distress. Cockerton says the younger child can become more clingy, not wanting to leave mom's side. The tummy ache is a common symptom of stress in younger kids.
Older children can also suffer physical symptoms, such as headaches. They may eat more or less than usual when they're feeling anxious, and Norris says they may also experience sleep interruptions and moodiness.
How parents can help
Kids feel more confident and competent when they come to school prepared. Here are 15 ways parents can help them be well organized and calm the jitters:
- Talk to your child about what causes worry. Provide accurate information if he or she is misinformed.
- Listen carefully and respond empathetically. Avoid saying, "Don't worry. You'll be fine." Focus on your child's very real concerns.
- Create safe space. The tween who resists face-to-face conversation may open up at unexpected moments. Look for natural opportunities to listen and check in during daily activities — riding in the car, doing a chore, playing a game.
- Read books. Cockerton says books can give kids "language to express what they are feeling." Characters in books who are having issues at school can normalize a child's feelings.
- List it. Help kids refocus on the positive by listing the things they're excited about as well as the things that scare them.
- Talk to veteran students. If your child is starting at a new school, make contact with kids who have been there for a year or two. Fears of the unknown can be calmed with accurate kid-to-kid info.
- Brainstorm. Help your child build a repertoire of possible solutions to a problem. Brown's son, Colin, was anxious at the thought of changing into his gym clothes among other boys. She helped him figure out where he could change and feel he had some privacy.
- Play "what if…" What would you do if you forgot your lunch? What would you do if you couldn't find your homework? This technique gets even the youngest kids involved in problem solving. As Principal Norris says, "Developing the skills to solve problems independently lasts a lifetime."
- Role play. Act out potentially uncomfortable interactions: What can you say if you want to be friends with someone? What can you do if someone is mean to you?
- Resist over scheduling. Keep extracurricular activities manageable, especially during the first months of school. Kids need down time to unwind and reflect.
- Show confidence. Let your child know you trust their ability to succeed. Remind them of the many challenges they've faced and managed in the past.
- Check parental fears. Children are very good at reading their parents' emotions and if the parent is worried about how their child will do at school, the child will interpret that as something to be worried about. Resist sharing your fears with your child.
- Make home comfortable. Kids who are worried about a parent's physical or mental health may be reluctant to leave home. When major life events (divorce, death, a family move) occur, maintain as consistent a routine as possible.
- Tour, meet, and greet. Visit the school so your child can see the layout. Make introductions to teachers and other school personnel.
- Get help. If your child's difficulties persist, Brown says, "Networking with the school personnel is a critical piece of the puzzle. Open communication with school teachers, counselors, and others is paramount to ensuring the most successful year possible."
Soothe the stress with belly breaths
An anxious child tends to take quick, shallow breaths. A good self-calming technique is the "belly breath." Here's how to do it:
- Sit comfortably.
- Place one hand lightly on your belly.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose for a count of four.
- Feel your belly rise.
- Hold the breath for a count of two.
- Let your breath out slowly through your mouth as you count to four.
- Repeat several times.
"13 Helpful Phrases You Can Say to Calm an Anxious Child" (lemonlimeadventures.com/what-to-say-to-calm-an-anxious-child). For the parent who feels stuck (and ineffective) saying, "Don't worry — you'll be fine!" This blog provides some helpful alternatives.
AnxietyBC (anxietybc.com/anxiety-PDF-documents). Printable information on coping with back-to-school fears, dealing with separation anxiety, teaching relaxation techniques, and much more.
KidsHealth (kidshealth.org). Excellent information on everything from safety and school jitters, to homework and health issues.
Books about this topic
To Read with Little Ones:
First Grade Jitters , by Robert Quackenbush (2010)
I Am Too Absolutely Small for School , by Lauren Child (2005)
Kindergarten Rocks , by Katie Davis (2008)
The Kissing Hand , by Audrey Penn (2007)
For Older Kids:
Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things , by Lenore Look (2009), ages 6-9
Back to School, Mallory , by Laurie B. Friedman (2005), ages 7-10
Smile , by Raina Telgemeier (2010), ages 8-12