August 10, 2018
It's a familiar late-summer scene. As the opportunities for pool time and sleeping late dwindle, the back-to-school jitters set in. The endless loop of questions — who will I sit with at lunch, will I remember my locker combination, will my teacher be nice — can rattle even the coolest of customers, making it tough to eat or sleep well.
About 8 percent of children and adolescents have an anxiety disorder, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. But kids don't need to have a diagnosable disorder to feel a little nervous about heading back to school.
"Anxiety is probably one of the most frequent reasons parents and kids seek me out," says Gloria Silverberg, a counselor at Luxmanor Elementary School in Rockville, Maryland.
"Some people call it the common cold of mental health. Kids, genetically, or maybe it's the environment we're in these days, are worriers. And for kids that have that worry gene, probably the beginning of anything is a little bit scary to them."
We spoke with Silverberg and other parents and experts for advice on how to ease kids back into the school year, whether they're in a new school or just moving up in a familiar setting.
Listen without Dismissing
Though it's tempting to pepper kids with questions, or lecture, parents should listen more than they talk, says Amanda Morin, an author, former teacher and mother of three in Maine who blogs for Understood.org.
"I used to transfer my own anxiety to them," Morin says. "I would ask, 'Are you worried about school or your teacher?' Instead, I had to start listening to what they were saying."
Don't dismiss their concerns, Silverberg says, because if they feel as if you are really listening to them, they will be more likely to come to you with problems or fears.
"Rather than negate it and say, 'You have nothing to worry about,' there are some things you can do with kids to draw them out," Silverberg says. That includes letting them explain their fears.
One way to do this is by playing a game Morin calls "What If vs. What Is," to help separate fear from reality.
"He would say, 'What if the school is too big?' and I would point out what is: 'You already know the building,' " Morin says. "Or if he says, 'What if I don't have any friends in my class?' I point out what is, that it's likely there will be at least one."
Sometimes, Silverberg says, injecting a little compassionate humor in the conversation can help. If they tell you, for example, that they're worried they're going to trip in the cafeteria and spill their lunch, say "Oh really, has that ever happened to you?" as a way of helping them see that it's not something they should fret about.
For other more serious fears, such as school safety, she suggests helping them process their anxiety.
"Talk about what would happen if an intruder came in, talk about making a plan, remind them that's why they practice for a fire drill or a lockdown," she says. "Tell them the practice is so that in the event that something should happen, you have a plan."
Bedtime is an opportune time to talk about whatever is on your child's mind because things tend to be quieter and more relaxed when the day's activities are done.
Kristin Kane, a family resource coordinator for the Virginia Parent Educational Advocacy Training Center who also blogs for Understood.org, likes to devote a few minutes to identifying the good and challenging things from the day, or what she calls "thorns and roses." The mom of three says she makes sure to end the conversation with the roses.
Morin's kids each keep a notepad next to their beds, where they can jot down the things that are worrying them, or draw pictures of their concerns.
"It helps them slow their brains down a bit, and dumps their worries on the paper, and reminds them that it's not something you have to fix right now," she says. She helps them differentiate between a "now" problem and something that is on their mind but can be addressed later.
Silverberg agrees that it's good to have these conversations at bedtime but suggests limiting them to five or 10 minutes, then using an imaginary "worry box" to lock them up for the night and help the child relax.
Do Some Prep Work
The more familiar your child is with their new environment, and the more information the teacher has about your child, the easier the transition will be, Morin says. Take advantage of any meet-the-teacher events or school tours, or set up a time when your child can visit the school independently and introduce themselves to teachers, walk through their schedules and find their lockers.
Kane supplemented the regular back-to-school event with a private tour with the vice principal when her son, now 17, started middle school. He has learning and attention issues that were compounding his back-to-school jitters, she says.
"I made the effort to contact the school and share a little bit of information about what was going on to cause him some anxiety," Kane says. It was quieter and more relaxed than a large event, and gave her son time to ask questions.
"It took away some of the little bits that tend to exacerbate their anxiety, like where are you going, where is your locker. There's still the anxiety of meeting new people, but it allows for an opportunity to dissipate some of the other anxiety."
Morin also recommends giving information to teachers that goes beyond what they will find in a standard school file to make it easier to establish a connection. Understood.org offers a template to help parents get started.
"Both of my boys have a wry sense of humor, and if the teacher makes a pun, they'll be instantly connected," she says. "But you can't get that from reading a file."
For kids who struggle socially, include some role-playing, Morin says. Talk through different scenarios and go over appropriate reactions. You can also have a debriefing session after school to talk about a social situation from the day that didn't go well, and how they can approach it differently next time.
Teach Them to Embrace Mindfulness
The first step to being able to combat anxiety or worry, Silverberg says, is recognizing the onset.
"Ask kids, 'Where do you feel it? In your tummy? Or in your chest?' " Silverberg says. "Teach them to notice what they're feeling."
Once children can identify the physical symptoms, whether it's butterflies in their stomach, a racing heart or shortness of breath, they will better be able to address the issue before it gets out of hand. Silverberg advises parents to equip kids with a "tool kit" of simple mindfulness techniques to help them relax and redirect their thoughts in a more productive direction.
She likes deep breathing, because it can actually change your body chemistry. Have your child lie on the floor with eyes closed and a book or stuffed animal on his stomach, and tell him to focus on making it move up and down slowly as he breathe. To help him tune into body signals, have him pant like a dog to speed up the heart rate, then observe the difference when he slows his breathing.
The book "Sitting Still Like a Frog" features one-page exercises for mindfulness. Some ideas include having your child be quiet and observe the sounds around her, or asking her to put a piece of candy in her mouth and notice its taste and texture.
There are also simple relaxation exercises, such as tightening and relaxing muscles slowly, that can be done anywhere.
Silverberg suggests having children keep a little card in their desk with a list of actions to refer to if they start to get worried: deep breathing, tightening and relaxing muscles, taking a walk for a drink, going to the counselor's office for a quick break.
And, building with Legos, coloring, writing and drawing are all activities a child can do at home (or in a counselor's office) to redirect their thoughts when worry starts to creep in.