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Helping Your Child with Back-To-School Anxiety

It’s hard to believe, but yet another summer seems to have flown past, and we’re once again approaching back-to-school season. For many children, September is an exciting time. They look forward to seeing old friends, making new ones and facing the challenges of a new grade, or even a new school. But it can also be a time of heightened anxiety, with other youngsters worrying about these new teachers, social situations, fitting in and even being away from home all day. It’s perfectly normal for kids to have worries, but it’s also extremely important that your child attends school, since skipping school or delaying their return only increases their fears. In this blog, I’m going to talk a little about getting your kids ready to return to school, signs of excessive anxiety, and what to do if your child is having difficulties during this back-to-school process.

Preparing for back-to-school week

For most children, going back to school means adjusting to a more structured schedule after a relatively carefree and laidback summer. An excellent way to prepare your child for this transition is by gradually shifting to a routine that’s closer to the school day. That means getting back to regular sleep schedules, meals and reduced screen time. It’s also important to go through some of the usual back-to-school rituals, such as shopping for clothes and supplies. These tasks help kids (and parents) get into the school-year mindset.

If kids have been away from their peers a lot, also try to get them together with friends and classmates. An outdoor playdate is ideal. Try not to supervise too closely, and just let them get back into the habit of being around, and interacting with other kids. Older kids, in particular, might also be struggling with social concerns. Although these can seems trivial to us, it’s really important to empathize with their worries. If you need help with this, imagine times when you’ve had an extended absence from work, and think about the uncertainty of returning to new people and new surroundings. If kids are overly focusing on the “new,” you can also remind that there will also be many familiar and friendly faces from past years. Through it all, let them know it’s normal to be worried, but it will also get easier each day.

Signs of anxiety in kids

Once the school year begins, keep a careful eye on your kids for signs that they’re struggling with excessive anxiety. Just bear in mind that kids usually don’t understand or process anxiety the way adults do. Young kids have difficulty expressing this concept, while older ones may be reluctant to admit or acknowledge they’re feeling anxious. Some signs include: increased defiance or irritability, sleep disturbances, reduced or increased appetite, difficulty concentrating and fatigue. Physical symptoms are also common, including unexplained stomach aches, nausea, body aches or dizziness.

By the way, this list of symptoms applies to kids of all ages, from kindergarteners up to high schoolers. Teens, in particular, are more likely to get angry and act out, rather than admit they’re scared or nervous. If these physical symptoms appear on Sunday night or Monday mornings, that’s a dead giveaway that they’re related to school. When these symptoms do appear, it’s essential to show empathy. These are not kids who are deliberately behaving badly. Rather, they’re trying to manage feelings that are too big and complex for them to process the way adults do.

So, what can you do when a child is excessively anxious about school? As well as the strategies I’ve already mentioned, create space for listening and talking. If kids exhibit defiance and refusal, use this as a chance to discuss what’s going on with them. Teens, for example, may be especially worried about social issues. Treating their fears with respect and empathy goes a long way to easing them.

However, if a child can’t get their anxiety under control, please don’t hesitate to contact a mental health professional. As well as learning reading, writing and math, school years are a crucial time for developing and practicing social skills, experiencing success and mastery and fostering friendships. It’s a crucial part of their development, and one not to be missed. The good news is that anxiety is among the most treatable of childhood mental health challenges, and the success rate among kids who get help is very high.

Anu Chahauver, MSW, RSW is a registered social worker / psychotherapist specializing in individual, family, couple and parent based treatment of anxiety and other concerns at our clinic.

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