Overcoming Back to School Anxiety in Children
HeadFirst Counseling, Dallas TX
As the new academic year quickly approaches, many children begin to re-experience anxiety related to school that had taken a back seat during the summer. The time off may have temporarily provided relief, but as the school year returns each August, so do many children’s anxieties.
While it is normal to feel nervous or anxious about a new school year, there are some fears and worries that take it a step further. Some children complain of increased physical symptoms- headaches, stomachaches- the closer school gets. Other children may have difficulty sleeping, have loss of appetite, or mysterious rashes appear on their body.
Other children may begin to display emotional symptoms as the new school year approaches. This may be manifested through becoming overly clingy to parents, fear of separation, frequent crying, difficulty getting along with others, isolation or withdrawal, or increased “acting out” behaviors, such as defiance, irritability, or opposition.
Ways to Cope with Back to School Anxiety
1.) Identify the Symptoms and Find the Source
Children may not be consciously aware of why these symptoms are returning, even if it is crystal clear to their parents. The first step for parents to make is to communicate this insight and understanding to their children. Communicating to your child that you notice his or her head has been hurting a lot the last several weeks and then commenting that school is starting back soon sends the message to the child that these two things may somehow be linked. Some children will deny this connection, but by the parent putting it out there it allows the child’s brain to form connections between these two events on an unconscious level.
When children are able to determine where their worry and anxiety comes from, they are able to feel more in control. When parents verbalize these observations to the child, the child becomes consciously aware of the symptoms and is better able to identify the source.
2.) Validate Your Child’s Worries and Fear
Many parents are uncomfortable seeing their child anxious for many reasons. For some parents, the feeling is all too familiar and they don’t want their child experiencing the same anxieties they had growing up. For other parents, it just feels helpless. Although the first thing most parents want to do is fix the problem, this is not always what the child’s brain needs.
In the moment of experiencing anxiety, fear, or worry, your child needs help with co-regulation. This means that the emotions your child is experiencing are too great and are taking over the child’s brain. He or she needs a parent to help co-regulate these intense feelings, so that the child can learn to eventually regulate these intense feelings on his or her own. Parents that are able to acknowledge their child’s worry and be present with that feeling- and not rushing to fix it or make it go away- are helping through co-regulation. This sends safety messages to the child’s brain that the parent understands, the parent is here to help, and the child is safe. This in turn allows the child to regulate their feelings more effectively, and the anxiety decreases.
3.) Begin Talking About School
The more in control children feel, the less anxiety they will experience. Talking with your child about the approaching school year is a way to provide your child with appropriate information about what to expect. Children feel safe when they are able to make predictions about the environment, so providing them with the information about school helps meet this need for predictability.
4.) Visit the New School
This is especially helpful for children that are transitioning to a new school. Again, this is giving them information to feel in control and accurately predict what the school year will be like. It is best if children are able to walk the halls of the school with their parents and meet the teacher. Some schools offer this, but others may not. If you missed this opportunity at your child’s school, or if this opportunity was achieved but brought on more anxiety as the new school year now feels real and quickly approaching to your child, regular drives past the school and to the school parking lot may be beneficial.
Some parents find that getting up in the morning and driving to the new school then back home, helps the child develop predictability and control over the morning routine and makes it go more smoothly once school begins.
5.) Read Books About School
Several of the families at HeadFirst Counseling have found relief through the use of children’s books in addition to therapy. Reading a book with your child about the topic for which he or she is struggling let’s your child know that they are not alone in feeling this way. It also gives the child practice of having their anxiety co-regulated by the parent.
If reading the book about back to school causes your child to get upset, use this as practice in managing their anxiety. Calmly validate the feeling (You’re scared/worried/sad/afraid of going back to school) and be present with the emotion. Using a soft, accepting voice combined with comforting touch (hugs and cuddles) will greatly benefit the child. Using these approaches, you should see a rapid decline in the level of anxiety. The more the children practice this dance of co-regulation with parents, the more they will be able to regulate on their own.
First Day Jitters by Julie Danneberg
The Night Before Kindergarten by Natasha Wing
The Night Before Preschool by Natasha Wing
This School Year Will Be the BEST by Kay Winters
6.) Begin or Resume Play Therapy
Many families have a busy summer schedule. Between month long sleep away summer camps or family vacations, it’s easy to let go of the set schedule and obligations that held you down during the school year. If your child’s symptoms of anxiety begin to return before the beginning of the year, it’s important to resume or begin therapy services to prevent they symptoms from spiraling out of control. The earlier the intervention, the greater the success.
Play therapy helps children express their fears and worries in a safe way using strategically chosen toys in the playroom. With the safety of the therapeutic relationship with the play therapist, children are able to release their tensions and worries and develop the coping skills and confidence needed to overcome anxiety.
Is your child currently experiencing anxiety related to the approaching school year? Contact our office here or schedule an appointment here to meet with a play therapist to help your child have a successful and enjoyable year at school.
Laura McLaughlin is the Founder and Therapist at HeadFirst Counseling in Dallas, TX. Laura works with children, teens, and parents to foster secure attachments and create an environment for families to thrive. Read more about Laura and HeadFirst Counseling at www.headfirstdallas.com
Laura can be reached by contacting the HeadFirst Office at (469) 665-9416 or firstname.lastname@example.org