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Tips for Managing Back-to-School Anxiety

Have anxious kids? Here are seven tips for helping them transition back to school more smoothly:

(1) Prepare: This step is not for them—it’s for you.  You need to stay calm so that you can separate your own anxiety from your child’s anxiety. Take some steps to soothe yourself in preparation for the first day of school. Do some deep breathing, meditate, do some yoga, go for a nice walk, get a massage, or simply go out for dinner or see a movie (preferably a comedy) with a friend. If you can, plan to take off a day or two or even just the morning school starts in order to help your anxious child get situated without other distractions.

(2) Find an in-school support team for you and your child. You can do this before school starts or at anytime during the year (the sooner the better). Hopefully, your school has a social worker, psychologist, guidance counselor, administrator, and/or teacher(s) that can become part of a support team to help your child (and you) cope. Some parents are reluctant to speak to school personnel because they do not want their child “labeled” as having problems and they are worried about academic and/or social fall-out if their child is perceived as having “special needs.” We understand this sentiment, but professionals in your school are there to help your child do his/her best. Shying away from the resources your school has to offer is doing your child a big disservice.  Besides, getting to know the staff early on will help you if any issues arise during the school year. And school professionals can be very comforting to anxious moms!

(3) Find a special “worry-free” zone for your child: The folks at my son’s school know he is anxious and sometimes needs a few minutes to catch his breath. The school secretary lets my son lie down in the nurse’s office and have a drink that we have left there for him. If your child needs a “quiet place,” talk to his/her teacher about it. Having such a place will be great for your child when he/she gets overwhelmed and anxious and may just save you a few midday trips to the school…

(4) Listen: Really take the time to listen to your child.  It can be very calming to an anxious child just knowing he/she is being heard. Repeat back to your child what he/she says to you in order to show that you are committed to understanding how he/she feels. Use empathetic terminology such as “I understand” and “that must be hard.” Do not dismiss anything your child says, especially somatic complaints. Young children may not know to say “I am anxious about school,” but may instead develop a stomachache. Older kids may feel fatigued or antsy without really knowing why.

(5) Make connections: Once you have eased your child’s physical symptoms, try to talk to him/her about the connection between feeling nervous and having, for example, stomach issues. Explain to your child that anxiety can show up in many forms and just about anywhere in the body. Suggest that your child try to verbalize the connection by saying, for example, “My tummy hurts because I am worried about meeting new kids in my class.” The more you can demystify the experience, the easier it will be for your child to manage the anxiety.

(6) Validate: Your child’s worries may seem trite at times to you as an adult, but resist the urge to be dismissive. Sitting alone at lunch may not seem so terrible to you (it’s probably very appealing), but, to an anxious child, this can be terrifying. Spend some time exploring your child’s fears and helping him/her find solutions. Don’t be afraid to ask your school support team for help with this one.

(7) Train your kids to breathe deeply when they are feeling anxious. Show them how to inhale through their noses and exhale (with a whooshing sound) through their mouths. Explain how doing this type of breathing tells the brain to release “feel good” chemicals. In the same vein, doing yoga with your kids is a great way to help them manage anxiety. Tree and downward facing dog are two great poses to teach children (and adults) with anxiety.

If you have any tips to add, please share them with the community. Your comments are really valuable!

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