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A Simple Plan to Tackle Back-to-School Nerves

Help kids build confidence and overcome school anxiety.

Photo used with permission from Element5 Digital on Unsplash
Changes are hard (even good ones!) and we tend to see a spike in anxiety, avoidance and behavior issues as transitions approach
Source: Photo used with permission from Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Just in time for the transition back to school, let’s talk about how to help your child manage anxiety.

Our starting place is understanding that anxiety is a powerful force – it makes us want to avoid whatever we’re anxious about. If you’re afraid of flying, guess what? Long road trips become a very appealing option!

Anxiety is really unpleasant; avoidance allows us to escape the physical and emotional discomfort of anxiety. Unfortunately, avoidance also works to reinforce that our fears are reasonable: if you only travel by car, it’s safe to assume that the only way you’ve survived thus far is not boarding an airplane. So we inadvertently reinforce that fear.

The opposite of this fear-based avoidance is mastery. We develop mastery when we approach the thing we fear, and we survive it. This is what we therapists call “exposure.” The key is gradual exposure to promote mastery. Gradual Exposure is the approach used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to treat anxiety and phobias. It works pretty darn well, even if you don’t have a Full-Blown Phobia. First we learn tools to self-soothe and manage the discomfort. Then we take tiny baby steps towards that anxiety-provoking experience. With each successful step, we develop a stronger sense of mastery. As our confidence builds, our anxiety becomes more manageable until we can face what once seemed impossible head-on. That experience becomes a part of the narrative of who we are – we are brave and overcame a fear! And guess what? It didn’t kill us! We could even do it again, probably!

Photo used with permission from Santi Vedrí on Unsplash
With each successful step, we develop a stronger sense of mastery. As our confidence builds, our anxiety becomes more manageable
Source: Photo used with permission from Santi Vedrí on Unsplash

So how can you help your kids do this? Let’s use returning to school as our anxiety-inducing subject:

1. Normalize the Emotions: First we want to talk about this process with our kids. We normalize feeling nervous. We let them know it happens to everyone.

2. Identify small steps: Then we help them identify those baby steps, so that the overwhelming task of “going to the first day of school” is broken down into manageable pieces. For younger kids it usually has to do with: getting to the bus stop, finding friends on the playground, meeting the teacher, and separating from parents for a full day. For older students, locker combinations are mystifying, and navigating a new school and locating a friend to sit with in the cafeteria are equally terrifying.

3. Rate the steps in order of scariness: Once we’ve identified the components of the scary event, we put them in order from least-scary to most-scary. I like to have kids written on post-it notes so we can rearrange them visually. And you’ve just created what CBT calls a “Fear Ladder” – climbing one rung at a time, we can get to a height that didn’t seem possible before! Not all kids need a formal Fear Ladder or gradual exposure plan. Your instincts as a parent will often tell you exactly what your child needs to increase confidence about starting school.

4. Practice calming skills while taking baby steps: Now it’s time to practice – we complete each step until it is no longer scary, celebrate our bravery, and move to the next step. Remember, this needs to be a supportive and positive experience. We’re really not going for a Fear Factor vibe here. We encourage kids to practice self-soothing during the mini-exposure. Here are some tips for this:

  1. Cognitive coping: we’ve talked about how to use cognitive coping as parents, but now we need our kids to practice it too! Help them notice their thoughts. “I can’t do this!” or “everyone is looking at me!” are not helpful or accurate. Come up with a helpful replacement mantra like “I can be brave!” or “I know I can make it to 3 PM”. You could even write it down, or have a special item for their pocket to remind them of their phrase.
  2. Deep breathing: when we slow down our respiratory and nervous systems through deep breathing, we allow our brains to turn off the panic alarm creating the physical sensations of anxiety. Some resources here for kid-friendly controlled breathing.
  3. Choices: fear makes us feel out of control. Allow your kids to exercise control over small elements: “You have to go to school. You can choose to take the bus or have me drive you on the first day”, or “would you feel most comfortable if you brought your lunch to school or if you got hot lunch?”
  4. Enlist Support: Who can you include on-site? School social workers, office staff and teachers are all heroes who definitely “get it” when it comes to back-to-school jitters. A supportive friend who can plan ahead to save a seat in 3rd period can make all the difference.
  5. Create an Exit Strategy: what’s the escape plan? Just knowing where to go or who to call if you feel panicked can prevent such a panic from coming up in the first place. Is there a nurse’s office where your child can take a break? Do they have your phone number handy in case they need to call?

Now that we have a coping skill or two in place, let the gradual exposure to school nerves commence. Some effective ideas include:

Photo used with permission by Mesh on Unsplash
Don't forget to celebrate the small and big victories! Overcoming feelings of anxiety is a huge accomplishment!
Source: Photo used with permission by Mesh on Unsplash
  • Practicing the walk to the bus stop
  • Mapping the route between classes and walking it with a friend, or a parent if they promise not to be TOO embarrassing
  • Making a plan with a friend to meet up and touch base during the school day
  • Practicing that locker combination one million times
  • Meeting teachers and the school staff in advance
  • Playing on the school playground to get comfortable with the environment

Most importantly, plan how each step is celebrated. Overcoming feelings of anxiety is a huge accomplishment and deserves to be praised and celebrated. Getting through a full day of school definitely deserves an ice cream cone. Especially if you’ve just survived your first day in Middle School.