6 Tips for Transitioning an Anxious Kid into a New School Year

Rear view photo of two children walking home from school wearing backpacks and carrying jacketsIt never fails: When August rolls around, parents begin calling the office. They are calling about their child, who made so much progress toward the end of the previous spring that we reduced or eliminated sessions. But as soon as the back-to-school supplies show up in stores, sleep patterns are disrupted, instances of acting out increase, and general chaos begins.

The children I see in my office often don’t realize why they are feeling so dysregulated. They blame situations with friends, their siblings, and their parents to externalize the cause for their behavior. Sometimes parents don’t even recognize the cause of increased anxiety. As I start asking questions to try to dig toward the cause of the change, I’ll hear tell-tale signals that school anxiety is building beneath the surface. “She’s crossing off the days on the calendar until school begins,” or “He asked if he could send an email to last year’s teacher.”

Other children are very aware that their anxiety is related to school, and they process it outwardly. Every day, they express concerns about not knowing their new teacher, dread the amount of homework they are going to have, or worry that they might miss the bus on the first day of school. The caretakers of these children may quickly become overwhelmed because usually they can give no answer other than, “We’ll find out when school begins.”

What can parents do to help their anxious children transition to the new school year? How can children who don’t recognize how much a new beginning worries them begin to accept and embrace the new adventures that each school year brings?

1. A change in behavior prior to or following a major transition could be related to anxiety.

When a child begins to fight more frequently with a sibling or talk back to parents, take a step back and ask what may be going on in that child’s life. Beginning a new school year is a major unknown for a child, even if the child has attended that school previously. Getting used to new teachers, new classmates, and new routines can be daunting, even for a child who doesn’t experience anxiety. Imagine starting a new job. Your worries about a new boss, different coworkers, and changing responsibilities are likely to be very similar to your child’s concerns about the coming school year.

2. Recognize psychosomatic symptoms as possible signs of anxiety.

If your child begins complaining about stomachaches, headaches, or any other maladies, realize that this may be a signal they are experiencing anxiety. If a child is anxious, they may truly have a headache, but consider finding ways to relieve the anxiety instead of only treating the headache medically, as this is likely to have more long-term benefit. Mindful breathing or guided visualization can be great tools to help alleviate this type of stress.

3. Confront the conversation directly.

Parents often want to keep the peace in the days leading up to the first day of a new school year. However, prepping your child for the upcoming change and talking about the transition can be beneficial. Ask what types of school supplies your child wants, have the child visualize an ideal classroom, and encourage the child to discuss ways to react in case things don’t go exactly as planned. By bringing up the conversation gently, parents have the opportunity to encourage verbalization and reassure their child of their ability to handle the situation.

4. Try not to allow avoidance.

Ask what types of school supplies she or she wants, what a perfect classroom would be like, and what their plan is if things don’t go exactly as they would like. By bringing up the conversation gently, parents have the opportunity to encourage verbalization and reassure their child that they can handle the situation.The primary thing anxiety drives a person to do is avoid the anxiety-provoking situation. When your child says, “I don’t want to go shopping for school supplies,” break it into smaller segments, such as only going to pick out a backpack. Leave the rest for another day. By encouraging your child to push through anxiety, you help build the belief they can succeed during this transition.

5. Ask the school for help.

Talk to the teacher. Talk to the counselor. Give them a heads-up about what your child is experiencing. They may have a plan in place or ideas to try to help acclimate your child to the new school year before it begins. If your school hosts a “meet the teacher” or “back-to-school night,” you may choose to request a separate time that your child can drop off supplies and meet the new instructor.

6. Use guided visualization.

Take the time to write out a script with your child about how the first day will go, from the time the child wakes up to the return home. Focus only on the positive aspects of the day. At bedtime each night, either read the script to your child or have the child read the script, imagining every portion of the day in detail. When your child arrives at the situations in the script that tend to trigger anxiety, encourage mindful breathing for self-regulation and help the child visualize how to handle those obstacles while at school.

Generally, students settle into a routine within the first few weeks of school, and their anxiety subsides. However, if you notice that your child is still experiencing trouble after the first part of the school year, reach out to your school or to a professional counselor who can help you and your child learn more in-depth coping skills to handle these intense experiences.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Emily Kircher-Morris, LPC, therapist in O Fallon, Missouri

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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  • Julianne

    Julianne

    September 11th, 2015 at 3:44 AM

    The hard part about this is that I have a child who is not only anxious but wants to do anything that she can to even avoid having any kind of conversation about it. She would rather hold it all in instead of talk about it which of course makes everything so much worse but she does not see that. Any thoughts on how I can get her to open up more about how she is feeling and deal with that part of this too?

  • Max

    Max

    September 13th, 2015 at 8:31 AM

    I would think that the schools would have some guidance counselors on call or employed by the school to help some of the children and the parents? I mean, this is something that we used to have when I was in school, not that I never used them but probably should have so I would think that in this world today where we know more and have so much more to offer that there would be this kind of help within the school system.

  • Fay

    Fay

    August 29th, 2017 at 11:06 AM

    Thank you for this clear and helpful psychoeducation. Even though I am a therapist myself, it made me realize that my teenage son’s recent irritability and withdrawal is due to school-related anxiety. Of course, he is defensive and avoidant about talking about it, but it helped us realize that despite being older, he is struggling with managing anticipatory anxiety and needs help.

  • Keli

    Keli

    September 14th, 2015 at 8:58 AM

    Well, my daughter is aware enough to know when that anxiety is there creeping in all over again but she has not yet grasped how to manage it. We go see a therapist and she does well for a little while afterwards but it always eventually begins mounting again, usually when there is going to be something big coming up at school.

  • marco

    marco

    September 15th, 2015 at 10:32 AM

    and for the anxious parents?
    because there are times when I think that the anxious parent energy makes things even worse for the kids than it would be if the moms and dads could stay calm too

  • Rhea

    Rhea

    September 16th, 2015 at 10:53 AM

    We really didn’t know what was going on with our son at first when this all started because he was having all these headaches and stomach pains and we were getting very scared thinking that there could be something terribly serious wrong with him. We had scans, tests, you name it we did it. Never thinking first about how anxiety was impacting him and manifesting itself in a physical way. We worked with teachers and counselors to finally reach that conclusion and since he now sees a counselor a few times a week that has been a tremendous help for him.

  • Theresa d.

    Theresa d.

    August 23rd, 2017 at 11:12 PM

    Thank y awesome read this had really helped me to help my little one who is very anxious at the moment about the big playground so some very useful tips and advice fingers crossed it will get easier for them and work towards overcoming the fear of it

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