How to Help Your Child with Back-to-School Anxiety

A young person sits on sofa with legs crossed, head on knees, face hiddenAnxiety is a normal stress reaction to perceived danger. Many people experience stress and anxiety when they go through a transition or change. Given that, it makes sense your child would be experiencing some anxiety about going back to school—especially if they are transitioning to a different school (i.e., starting high school). In the paragraphs that follow, I will outline some ways you can help your child cope with back-to-school anxiety.

1. Validate Their Emotions

Acknowledge and honor that going back to school can be scary and your child’s fear or anxiety is valid. When you are validating someone’s emotions, you are letting them know you empathize with their experience and reassuring them that their perspective is understandable. You can validate your child’s experience by just listening; reflecting back what they’ve told you; helping them articulate unsaid emotions, thoughts, or behaviors; communicating how their behavior makes sense given past or present circumstances; and being radically genuine when you talk with them (Koerner 2012).

2. Share and Demonstrate Your Coping Strategies

Anxiety is a universal emotion. This means having several ways to cope with your anxiety regardless of how intense your experience is. In addition to sharing with your child how you cope with anxiety, letting them witness you cope can be a meaningful learning experience. For example, if music helps you center yourself and calm down, let your children see you use music in this way. You can even practice using your skills together and talking about any differences you notice.

3. Get to Know the School

Schools tend to be accommodating in allowing new students to tour them before the school year starts. Some may even let you meet the teachers. If for some reason that’s not allowed, you can drive or walk to the school to see the location together. Once you know who the teachers are, introduce yourself. I am a fan of face-to-face interactions, but if that’s not possible, an email will be just fine. By keeping the lines of communication open and positive from the beginning of the school year, you are creating a strong support system for your child. I would also recommend finding out if your school has any social workers or similar school staff that can assist your child if they encounter emotional troubles.

If you believe your child could benefit from counseling for their anxiety, contact a therapist in your area for more information.

4. Cope Ahead

Another way to prepare is by creating what I call a “coping ahead plan.” This means talking with your child about ways they can prepare and plan for stressful situations in school. I would recommend asking your child, rather than telling them, what they believe would be most helpful in different scenarios. For example, if you know your child is worried about not having any friends to sit with at lunch time, you might ask, “What would you tell your friend to do in that situation?” Another suggestion might be to ask, “How did you make friends to sit with at your last school?” After they’ve shared their suggestions, you can give feedback about what sounds like a great strategy and give your ideas as well.

Making a list of coping strategies your child can use in school, as well as safe people they can go to for help when they are stressed, is a great idea. This could include the teacher, school social worker, school nurse, or principal, to name a few. I would make sure you clear this list with the school because if you write down, say, the school nurse, then discover they aren’t as accessible as you thought, you don’t want your child to become even more anxious.

Try some or all of these tips to help your child cope with back-to-school anxiety. Ultimately, it is your child’s choice how they choose to prepare and cope with their stress. If you believe your child could benefit from counseling for their anxiety, contact a therapist in your area for more information.

Reference:

Koerner, K. (2012). Doing dialectical behavior therapy: A practical guide. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Mallory Grimste, LCSW, therapist in Woodbridge, Connecticut

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Gina

    Gina

    September 3rd, 2016 at 8:58 AM

    We have only been back in school for a few weeks now and you are right, the anxiety for all of us in the house has been slowly building since that very first day.
    These are some very good tips to hopefully help us through this first year of high school.

  • Mallory Grimste, LCSW

    Mallory Grimste, LCSW

    September 6th, 2016 at 5:24 PM

    Gina, I am glad you found these tips helpful. Wishing you and your family a successful school year!

  • Leona

    Leona

    September 6th, 2016 at 1:06 PM

    Having a talk with my child tonight. She has already called me today saying that she feels sick and I know that it’s anxiety! (This is the first day of school btw)

  • Mallory Grimste, LCSW

    Mallory Grimste, LCSW

    September 6th, 2016 at 5:26 PM

    Leona- you are so right about that sick feeling! Our bodies have amazing ways of making sure we are aware of what we are feeling. Your child is lucky to have a parent so in tune with this. Hoping the first day (and all the rest) are a success!

  • Polly

    Polly

    September 7th, 2016 at 10:23 AM

    Do you have any general feelings about the use of medication in teens who experience this kind of anxiety on a daily basis?
    We have tried EMDR but I don’t know, should we try something more because she still has these troubling feelings from time to time that feel unmanageable with this alone.

  • Mallory Grimste, LCSW

    Mallory Grimste, LCSW

    September 9th, 2016 at 12:36 PM

    Hi Polly, I’m sad to hear your daughter is continuing to struggle with her anxiety. In terms of medication as another approach, I would recommend consulting with your daughter’s current therapist and/or a Psychiatrist or Psychiatric APRN specializing in adolescent mental health. Each person and situation is different and it wouldn’t be fair for me to safely recommend for or against medication as an additional treatment approach without actually evaluating your daughter personally.

  • Hal

    Hal

    September 9th, 2016 at 10:40 AM

    My daughters always loved it when I would come and volunteer at their school. I think that for many kids knowing that their parents are at school, would have made them even more anxious but for my girls they sort of saw that as making them feel like school was a safe place to be. They knew that there would be many given days where if they needed me I was just a few doors down from them. I think that this made what could have been a very tense situation into one that was a little more comforting to them as a result.

  • Mallory Grimste, LCSW

    Mallory Grimste, LCSW

    September 9th, 2016 at 12:38 PM

    Hal, That is awesome you found a way to help your girls out by volunteering at their school.

  • Cecily

    Cecily

    September 12th, 2016 at 10:32 AM

    Can meeting the teachers ahead of time help?

  • Mallory Grimste, LCSW

    Mallory Grimste, LCSW

    September 12th, 2016 at 12:17 PM

    Yes Cecily- I am a huge fan of face to face conversations if you can manage it. Meeting the teachers ahead of time, if your school allows, can help establish them as a safe person for your child to go to when feeling anxious in school. Meeting the principal ahead of time is also great idea if your school allows that as well.

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