The beginning of a new school year can be as stressful as it is exciting. The unknowns that come along with new teachers, new classmates, and new course material are enough to spike anxiety for many children. This is especially true if your child is transitioning from one school to another, say, from middle school to high school, or to a school in a new town. No one wants to see their child unhappy, and parents frequently feel the stress of this transition. This anxiety often dissipates relatively quickly as your child settles into their new surroundings. However, supporting your child through their transition to make it as smooth and as short-lived as possible is important. Here are a few tips for how to help your child cope with back-to-school anxiety.
Validate their emotions
It’s important to make sure the child feels like their concerns are being heard. Even if what is causing their anxiety seems insignificant to you, avoid using dismissive language like “you have nothing to worry about!” or “everything will be fine!” Though well-intentioned, your goal is not to belittle their fears, but to communicate that it’s okay to feel afraid and to talk about them. You want to send the message, “I’m hearing how afraid you feel about this, and that’s okay. I’m here to support you through it.”
Manage expectations while expressing confidence in your child
The truth is that you can’t always promise your child that their fears won’t come true. Unfortunately, some of our children’s worries about may become reality. You can’t promise that they will never fail a test or that another child will never laugh at them, but you can reassure them that they will always be supported and will always come out the other side. Expressing confidence in your child’s ability to overcome and resolve challenges sends the message that they are capable and resilient – without setting them up for disappointment.
Talk things through
It may help reduce your child’s anxiety to talk through what would realistically happen if one of their fears did come true. A child who is anxious about being separated from their parents might worry about what would happen if no one came to pick them up at the end of the day. Work together to create a game plan for this situation: I would tell my teacher, who would call my parents or another adult I know and trust, and wait with me until they got there. Doing this can reduce feelings of uncertainty while also demonstrating that although your child can’t have control over everything that happens to them, they can have control over how they perceive and respond to it.
Send them to school, even if they resist
Even if your child is resisting going to school and asking to stay home, the most important thing that you can do is to send them to school anyway. As difficult as it may be, you don’t want to reinforce the idea that avoidance is a healthy way to deal with things that make them anxious. Scary and unpleasant things will happen – let them know that the more they face the things they fear, the less fearful they will become. If your child’s anxiety seems extreme, there might be something going on at school that you are unaware of and that needs to be addressed, such as bullying or some kind of disciplinary action.
It’s normal for kids to feel some level of nervousness or anxiety about returning to school. However, if a child’s school anxiety is intense and ongoing and they continue to resist, it may be an indication of an underlying issue. If you think this could be the case, don’t wait to seek professional mental health guidance for you and your child.