As the temperature rises deep into the dog days of summer, so too does children’s back-to-school anxiety. It’s as predictable as sunburns and 4th of July fireworks, but the form it takes may surprise you. One year it might be your child having trouble sleeping; the next it can be an increase in irritability or acting out; and another time it may be your child withdrawing from you or friends. How can you and your child handle anxiety about school beginning? Jessie Borelli, professor of psychological science at the University of California, Irvine and a clinical psychologist specializing in developmental psychopathology, offers three ways to help kids move past their jitters and get into the action this fall.
- Create time and space to talk about worries: If you notice your child behaving in a way that signals they might be feeling nervous about the school year starting, carve out some time to speak with them privately about how they’re feeling about school. Make sure that they have your attention and you have theirs (no cellphones) and that there is complete privacy so they can talk freely.
- Ask them in an open-ended way how they’re feeling about going back to school.
- How are you feeling about school beginning?
- What are some things you’re looking forward to, and what are some things you’re not feeling good about?
- Focus your energy on listening to what they’re saying, allowing your child to share as much as they can. Asking follow-up questions can also facilitate this.
- How long have you been feeling this way?
- How often do you think about these things?
- What do you do when you feel this way?
- Praise them for sharing with you.
- Thank you so much for telling me about this.
- I’m so glad to know how you’re feeling about this.
- It makes me feel closer to you to know what’s going on inside you.
- Send the message that anxiety about transitions is normal and manageable: School creates anxiety in many children, and nervousness about returning to classes is very common. In fact, back-to-school or back-to-work nightmares still plague some adults long after they’ve ceased to be relevant. It’s helpful for your child to know they’re not alone in experiencing these concerns. You can reassure them that their fears “are normal,” “are typical” or “make a ton of sense.” You can tell them that “so many kids feel worried at the start of school,” or you can share your own feelings about school if you remember them. Knowing that someone important in their life thinks their anxiety is not unusual will also help them feel that you’re not judging them.
- Create action plans to respond to your child’s concerns: At the same time as you offer reassurance, you also want to help your child feel confident in their ability to confront their worries. Minor anxieties are part of life, and learning how to work through them is an important part of growing up. You can help teach your child these skills by developing a plan with them for how they can manage their concerns about going back to school.
- Would it help them to write down their worries in a notebook and close the notebook when they’re done, putting the worries to bed? Or would it help them to do something to address the things they’re anxious about?
- For instance, if they’re concerned about not knowing kids in their class, would it help for them to look at the yearbook and familiarize themselves with peers from their grade?
- Perhaps it would help them to practice things they’re worried about, such as walking to school or saying hello to new people?
- Or would it help to think about something fun they can do after the first day of school, giving them something to look forward to, like a reward for getting through something anxiety-provoking?
There are many types of action plans for addressing your child’s concerns. Different approaches may work for different children, but developing a plan is important in helping to communicate to your child that they can manage their anxiety and that you’re confident in their ability to do so.
Although helping kids navigate these back-to-school jitters can be difficult, it can bring them and parents closer and teach children valuable lessons about their capacity to overcome challenges.
Jessica Borelli is the author of Nature Meets Nurture: Science-Based Strategies for Raising Resilient Kids and the forthcoming Audible course “How to Talk to Kids About Death.” Her research focuses on the links among close relationships, emotions, health and development, with a particular emphasis on risk for anxiety and depression. In her work, Borelli is interested in harnessing relationship science to develop interventions to improve mental health and well-being. She also maintains a private practice where she sees children, adolescents, adults, couples and families, with a specialization in anxiety disorders, mood disorders and parenting/family relationships (www.compass-therapy.com).