Editor’s Note: This post is written by my sister, Susanna, who just so happens to be an awesome child psychiatrist. Since I’m always asking her for advice on how to deal with X, Y or Z, I thought I would share some of her fabulous tips! If you have anxious little ones (I know I do!), here are some great tips for managing the often stressful back-to-school transition.
8 Tips for Managing Back to School Anxiety
By Dr. Susanna Quasem
Starting something new is hard. For kids, starting school for the first time – or going back to school – is both exciting and scary. For parents, it likely brings relief (finally they’re going back to school!) and some anxiety too. Particularly if you have an anxious child. Here are some tips to help make the transition back to school a more successful experience for your child – and you.
1. Plan ahead
Everyone feels better if they have a plan. For kids who struggle with anxiety, it can be hugely helpful to do a bit of advance planning. Visit the school a few days in advance to acclimate to the sights and smells. Figure out where the locker and bathrooms are and get a rough idea of your child’s daily schedule.
This can help answer some of their questions like how will I get to and from school and how do I get lunch? (Note: Caroline didn’t eat lunch the first day of kindergarten because she didn’t understand how the lunch money system worked and was too scared to ask!)
2. Find familiar faces
This one may be harder, but kids feel so much better if they see familiar faces on the first day. Meeting 1 or 2 kids from class ahead of time could make a HUGE difference. If you can’t meet classmates, try to meet the teacher. Some preschools do teacher home visits so kids get to know the teacher on their turf, which can be much less scary.
3. Talk about how the day will go
It’s also a good idea to review with your child how the first drop off will go. A possible script might go something like “I will get you settled in your class, give you a hug and a kiss, and then I’ll say goodbye and leave, but remember that I’ll be back very soon to pick you up after school.”
4. Make it fun
Try making back to school shopping a fun outing. Let them be very involved. Get ice cream, be enthusiastic. Plan a special reward or treat after the first day and the first week of school, such as letting the child get a special dessert or new toy. Make the first day special to help increase the fun factor and lessen the anxiety —take pictures, take special requests for breakfast, leave them a note in their backpack, etc.
5. Talk about their feelings
Helping kids identify, label and express their feelings is such an important task and starting back to school provides great opportunities for these kinds of talks. Ask them a few days before school how they are feeling about it. If they have trouble labeling their emotions, give them a menu—are you feeling excited, scared, sad or upset?
If they talk about feeling scared, first validate their fear (“I bet all the kids are a little scared, everyone is scared when they start something new”). Ask them follow up questions, such as asking if there is anything specific they are scared of (pick up/drop off, how the cafeteria works, not knowing anyone, etc).
If kids talk about feeling sad, again validate their feelings and see if you can help them express reasons for feeling sad (e.g., separating from their parent or end of summer). Then help them think through some basic coping skills, such as problem-solving (“let’s go check out the cafeteria before school and see how it works”) or coping thoughts to keep in their heads to tell themselves.
6. Help develop coping skills
You can help your child learn to soothe themselves with coping thoughts (“I know I’ll feel better soon”) and reminders of things they can look forward to (their first day treat). Some of my favorite coping thoughts are “I’m scared but I know I’ll be okay,” “I’m scared but I know it will get easier after I get used to it,” “Most likely it will be easier than I think it will be right now.”
You might need to write these coping thoughts on a little card for them to carry in their pocket (if they can read) or perhaps carry a little comfort item with them on the first day (picture of the family or pet).
If your child still seems to struggle with strong emotions after talking through them and working on coping thoughts, some other suggestions include teaching your child relaxation skills, such as taking 5 deep breaths or helping them to imagine their “happy place” (beach, lake, sitting in a tree) when they are feeling anxious, sad or upset.
7. Use your resources
Teachers, principals, and guidance counselors can be very helpful resources also if you think your child might have a difficult transition. Introduce your child ahead of time so your child can seek them out if needed. You might also ask that the guidance counselor check in on your child a few times initially to help them feel comfortable.
8. Manage your own anxiety
Sometimes the hardest part of parenting is managing your own feelings. It’s a struggle for parents to see their child upset or scared. Stepping back to let your child handle a tough situation makes every parent cringe! But the feelings you project to your child are HUGELY important so remember:
- Stay confident! kids will be more anxious if they sense you are anxious too. (“I know it’s a little scary, but I know it’s going to be great…”).
- Don’t hang around too long at drop off. Kiss your child, make sure they are oriented to the teacher/room, remind them when you (or someone else) will pick them up, remind them of the special dinner at the end of the day, and then leave them in the teacher’s good hands.
- Take good care of yourself! Talk to your spouse, therapist or other parents to help with managing your own feelings. Remember, you may need a special treat at the end of the day too.