Sometimes, the hardest thing about being a parent is allowing your child to be him or herself. Children don’t always meet our expectations, but that doesn’t mean they should be forced to alter behavior they can’t help or be bullied into changing. That can be difficult for parents of kids who suffer from anxiety, especially when it comes to school.
School anxiety is a common phenomenon in the United States. According to a recent study, more than one in twenty school-age children and teens have anxiety or depression (“More than 1 in 20 US children and teens have anxiety or depression,” 2018). Unfortunately, working around such a problem when it’s time to go back to school in the fall can be a wrenching and heartbreaking ordeal. The problem is so widespread that schools nationwide have been forced to adapt to the situation. As a new school year approaches, here are a few points to consider in dealing with an anxious child.
One of the worst things you can do is to shame your child for the way she feels (Åslund, C., et. al., 2007). Her nervousness is an honest and real reaction to a situation that frightens her – she can’t help it. Telling a child to get over it and forcing her into school in front of friends and teachers is far more likely to worsen a difficult situation than to solve anything. Instead, be supportive and try normalizing the way she feels. Assure her that she’s not alone, that many kids feel just like she does and that there’s nothing at all wrong with feeling nervous about going back to school. If your child continues to resist, try taking it one step at a time. Make arrangements for you, your child and a counselor to discuss any issues so that he or she feels more at ease.
If you’re concerned about your child’s return to school, start laying the groundwork during the summer (Csóti, 2003). Give yourself plenty of time to gradually get your child used to the idea, and allow him or her to share any fears and thoughts. Talk through them openly but patiently; don’t invalidate any feelings and make it clear you’ll be with your child every step of the way. A couple weeks before the first day of school, begin putting your child to bed as you would when she’s in school, and have her get up earlier in the morning so she grows re-accustomed to the rhythms and realities of the school year.
Talk about homework schedules for the coming year and begin to ease the transition by discussing how screens and handheld devices will be turned off during homework/study time and arrange a dedicated and organized study space, with all the necessary supplies near to hand. If your child’s school has a back-to-school event, be sure to attend with your child so she can meet her teacher, interact with classmates and get used to the feel of being in school again. Getting kids to do homework can be an ordeal. If you have a child who does better listening to music during homework, consider buying headphones. A good pair can be purchased for under $100.
Make it a positive event
Parents often dread the beginning of a new school year because it means overseeing homework, getting kids up early and preparing them for school, then rushing to get to work on time. Avoid airing these thoughts or acting negatively about school in front of your child. Try treating the first day of school as a time for celebrating an exciting new year (Csóti, 2003). Emphasize that your child will be reunited with old friends and can expect to meet new ones.
Talk about field trips and school fairs, sports and activities she enjoys. Plan a healthy, protein-rich breakfast for the first day so she’s energized and physically ready. Consider an after-school treat to celebrate that she made it through the first day and take the time to talk through the experience. What was she feeling? How did she cope with her fears?
Be open to your child’s fears and willing to discuss any concerns she has about going back to school. Sometimes, talking through issues can have a healing effect, so show that you’ll be supportive rather than demanding and let her know you’re a friend and ally.
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Åslund, C., Nilsson, K. W., Starrin, B., & Sjöberg, R. L. (2007). Shaming experiences and the association between adolescent depression and psychosocial risk factors. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 16(5), 298-304. doi:10.1007/s00787-006-0564-1
Csóti, M. (2003). School Phobia, Panic Attacks and Anxiety in Children. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
More than 1 in 20 US children and teens have anxiety or depression. (2018, April 29). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/04/180424184119.htm