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