It 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.”
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.
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