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Back to School With a Sensitive Kid?

Here are six ideas to manage routines in the school year.

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Back to School
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We are creatures of habit and everyone struggles with transitions to a certain degree. But children, tweens, and teens who have been exposed to adverse childhood experiences (ACE), developmental delays, learning difficulties, as well as emotionally sensitive children, in general, are especially vulnerable in transitions. In this post, I refer to such children as “sensitive.”

Biologically, our body and nervous system are set up to be easily triggered when things are not predictable. This is a survival response that puts the coping responses of a sensitive person on hair-trigger alert. Being on high alert is useful for certain kinds of crises, but it can wreak havoc on the life of a child and caregivers when the nervous system is triggered by every small change in environment or routine.

The transition from summer vacation back to school is for many children a shift towards higher anxiety. School can be stressful for many reasons – social pressure, academic pressure, physical and cognitive stress. Emotional pressures increase and most children display an increase in stress responses.

For sensitive children, school requires a lot of energy to cope with the anxiety and stress that comes with a day at a school. There are several steps that we can take to help with this. These are not new or unusual ideas and their impact will be multiplied if you incorporate them into routines.

1. Create a weekly schedule.

Practice it at least a week ahead of time so you can anticipate where the challenges lie. Most sensitives struggle with transitions that occur across a day – from getting out of bed to getting dressed and eating breakfast, from home to car or bus, from car or bus to school, etc. Doing “dry runs” of the home part of the schedule will familiarize the child with the routines and enable you to adjust things to optimize them. Then stick with routines as much as possible.

What can you do:

  • Plan a weekly menu – including lunch if the child carries a lunch box – read here about the importance of nutrition and inflammation and how it relates to stress symptoms.
  • Prepare lunchboxes the night before.
  • Prepare clothes the night before.
  • Organize school bags the night before
  • Plan a daily routine – wake-up, get ready, school-ride/walk, pick-up, time for play or other regrouping (grounding) activity, homework time, dinner, bedtime.

2. Maintain sleep routines.

Sleep is one of the most important regulators of the nervous system. Sleep deprivation has a significant effect on mental state. It is tricky since for many sensitive children sleep is difficult. Fears come up in the after-dark hours when quietness and darkness can feel scary, isolating, and lonely. Ruminative thoughts and fears are more likely. Some children find it hard to fall asleep, others wake up at night and find it hard to go back to sleep.

Most children do not sleep enough. See this list to check if your children get enough sleep hours.

What can you do:

  • Make sure your child is active enough to be physically tired enough to sleep. Be aware that for some children, exercise is energizing and may prevent sleepiness close to bedtime.
  • Avoid screen-time at least an hour before bedtime.
  • Read together, let the child read to you, or alone, listen to a story-telling podcast.
  • Some children are comforted by prayers/affirmations at bedtime.
  • Practice a breathing exercise together.
  • Detox baths can be relaxing. Adding Epsom salts and calming oils may help too.
  • Supplements can be helpful but need to be chosen with care. Consider natural supplements in consultation with professionals.
  • If your child tends to wake up at night, prepare a routine that will help your child go back to sleep. Some of my young clients like this self-compassion routine:

“What am-I feeling right now? I feel xxxx. How much do I feel it on a scale of 1-10 (1 is almost none and 10 is the most) xxxx is a part of life, everybody feels like that sometimes. (Lay hand on chest, or self-hug) That’s ok, I am ok.”

  • If sleep difficulties persist, rule out medical causes such as sleep apnea, worms, parasites, and so forth.

3. Movement, art, play, and self-regulation.

All people, especially children, need to be active and playful, exposed to fresh air and sunlight. I’m especially a fan of imaginary games and play and the more outdoors the better. Spontaneity, imagination, and play are building blocks for wellness, including academic retention.

Children with sensitive nervous systems benefit in particular from such play and experience calming effects. Think about it – the more we are stressed the less playful we are. Think of play and imagination as a muscle that needs to be strengthened – the more we do, the more we are “flexible” and our stress level calms down.

What can you do:

  • Play with your kids or find opportunities for your child to play, including for teenagers.
  • Engage with spontaneity in your home routines. This one does not have to be complicated. Put some music on before dinner and start mirror-dancing together (one person dances and everyone else mirrors).
  • Make art together, go for a walk and imagine together what you see around, invent stories, role-play. None of these activities needs to take more than a few minutes. The most important thing is to make them a part of your routines, a few times a week for a few minutes each time.

4. Choose your battles.

I think many kids are overworked from very young ages. All children need some “downtime” when they are just hanging around home, without external structures of time or performance. Sensitive children need this even more than other children. Instead, many are run around by parents on hectic schedules, from school to after-school programs and then homework, with very little time for grounding and relaxing.

Boredom can be useful for kids, spurring them to come up with new inventions of things to do (see the previous bullet). But sensitive children may struggle with boredom more than other children and they may need assistance to expand their capacity to tolerate boredom without triggering their nervous system and getting anxious.

What can you do:

  • Choose less instead of more – sensitive children need grounding time to rewind and regroup.
  • Allow your child to take a “special day.” My mom would let me choose a day every so often to stay at home on a school day and we did something special. It does not have to be on school-days; in my memory, it just made it more special.
  • Choose your battles regarding homework and academic tasks. From very young ages, kids are tested and measured for their academic achievement. Personally, my grades in school did not reflect my potential or predict my future. If things are smooth and your child is doing well, great. If not – try to focus on the mental wellbeing of your child and not on academic performance. It is never too late to improve grades later when things are calmer, easier, and smoother.
  • Make your child’s teacher and school staff your allies. Share with them your struggles at home. If you have a therapist, ask her to update the teacher and/or other school-based caregivers periodically.
  • Advocate for your child at school and make sure they get the support or adjustments needed. There are no perfect schools or systems, but many are willing to be accommodating.

5. Be a bridge for your child’s experience.

Many children who experience sadness or fear and anxiety tend to color reality in polar colors and focus on the difficult ones. It takes maturity to move beyond seeing the world in simple terms of black/white, happy/sad, angry/calm.

What can you do:

  • Be the bridge for your children by using your maturity and experience to help your child identify emotions he or she experiences daily that are being overlooked, in addition to the polar ones.
  • Sometimes when your kids are calm, joyful, and engaged, gently remind them that when they feel sad, for example, they do not remember these good moments – and these moments do take place. That’s another way to be a bridge for them.
  • When children are overwhelmed, help them recognize the diversity of their experience. For example, when a child feels that everything is terrible, remind them – “this is how you feel right now, you will not always feel like this.”
  • Stay next to your kids and acknowledge their feelings even when it is difficult. When they cry, scream, and are really not nice to you, this is when they want to engage with you the most. From a young age, children need to feel that it is ok to be “yucky," messy, angry, tantrummy, and still be "good enough," and loved.

Stay with them, even without saying anything. Try to hold them if they will let you, or just sit beside them until they calm down. It won’t always work, but most times it will.

This does not mean that you need to feel tender and loving all the time when your kids are very reactive. It is ok to get angry, it is ok to sometimes lose your temper as well and get upset. Life is messy. What’s really important is to demonstrate re-attunement and go back to your child and say, “I was upset," or "I was out of line," etc. Then say, "I am sorry. Even when I am angry and upset, I love you.” (Read more here on re-attunement.)

6. Get support and guidance.

It can be very difficult to parent a sensitive child. It touches our own pain and rawness. We need guidance and support to first support them, and at the same time get support to ourselves as we care for them. Seek guidance that does not focus only on processing the problem and decisions you face. You also need non-judgemental space to work through the pain and sense of inadequacy that comes with the role for many parents. Support can help you to connect with a sense of being the "good-enough-parent" that you probably already are.

I hope that this coming academic year is filled with all that is good for you and your child.