Anxiety is one of the most common mental health concerns for children and adolescents, affecting approximately 20% of children. In other words, one in five parents will have a child who struggles with anxiety. For many parents, back-to-school season is a joyous time – families are getting back into their usual routines and parents no longer have to worry about how they are going to entertain their children. But, for parents with anxious children, back-to-school can be a difficult and stressful time.
Feelings of anxiety are normal during times of change, and starting school or transitioning back to school after the summer holidays is a common trigger for anxiety in children. Children can also experience anxiety when their school-based support system changes – for example, if their friend moves away or they have a different teacher. You might start to notice your child complaining of stomach/head aches or other physical health symptoms, crying before school, asking to stay home from school, experiencing increased irritability, seeking constant reassurance from you, and/or having difficulty going to or staying asleep at night – these are all signs of school-related anxiety in children. As a parent, it can be challenging to know how to support your child when they begin showing symptoms of school-related anxiety – you might start to feel frustrated or helpless, and not know where to start. Here are a few tips and strategies to help make this year’s back-to-school transition easier for you and your child:
- Shift your focus – Your child’s anxiety is not something that will go away over night, so remember that your focus should not be to eliminate the anxiety, but to help your child learn to manage their anxiety symptoms and triggers.
- Respect and talk about your child’s feelings – Invite your child to talk about their worries and fears. Listen intently and validate how they feel. Remind them that being worried about something is normal and that you are there to support them and help them get through this difficult time.
- Avoid avoiding – Try not to encourage your child to avoid things that make them anxious. Avoidance can quickly turn into a coping strategy, and prevents your child from learning ways to manage their feelings. Instead…
- Problem Solve – Help your child think of solutions to the situations that cause them to anxiety. For example, if your child shares with you that they are worried about making new friends, invite them to generate solutions to their concerns by saying “let’s think of some ways you could handle that”.
- Teach them ways to calm themselves down – When humans experience anxiety, the central nervous system is working in overdrive. Teaching your children grounding strategies, such as deep breathing (imagine blowing bubbles), will help them reverse this nervous system response and will help them to calm down. They can use these strategies any time they start to feel worried or anxious.
- Help them develop a soothing bedtime ritual – Restorative sleep is key for anxiety management. If your child isn’t sleeping well at night, it will likely exacerbate their anxiety. Reading and snuggling with them, running them a bath, or listening to relaxing music before bed will help them wind down and get more restful sleep.
- Stick to a school-day routine – Much like the bedtime routine, a school-day morning routine can help calm an anxious child. A routine will help your child to learn what to expect for each morning, and this consistency can help to comfort them.
- Talk to their teacher – As a parent, you don’t have to be the sole support for your child. Let the teacher know that your child is experiencing some school-related anxiety. This will provide the teacher with more insight on how to support your child, but can also help you to feel like you have someone else on your team.
- Do a trial run – Bringing your child to the school, classroom and/or playground before the first day of school can help reduce their worries about the coming school year. It can ease their minds about what to expect and will help them feel more comfortable in the school environment.
- Celebrate the positives – Remind your child of their past triumphs, celebrate their bravery, and be their cheerleader! Encouraging words can help them drown out those anxious thoughts, and boost their confidence.
Experiment with these strategies. Every child will be different, and strategies that help ease anxiety for one child, may not be helpful for another. Remember, learning to manage anxiety, including back-to-school anxiety, takes time and practice. Be patient with your child and yourself. Practice self-compassion. And, if you and/or your child continue to struggle, reach out to your doctor and/or a mental health professional for additional support.
By Laura Dziuba, MSW, RSW