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Back to school dread: Beyond first day jitters

When back to school anxiety becomes too overwhelming

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For most kids the end of summer is somewhat bittersweet. Although the summer is usually a time for fun, back to school brings with it excitement and anticipation. Tweens in middle school look forward to reconnecting with their friends and reinvolvemenent in school year activities often put on hold over the summer. It is not unusual for a tween to experience some anxiety regarding the first day of school. Tweens are at the vulnerable stage when the combination of biological, cognitive, and social development can result in uncertainty and at times discomfort. The world is a fragile place for tweens. A propensity toward sensitivity and self-awareness can result in over analysis of themselves and those around them. This is why tweens are easily embarrassed and often quick to judge what others say and do, especially the people they love most. Given all this, it is certainly not surprising that the start of a new year can cause the typical tween at least a little bit of unease.

There are some kids for whom the idea of going back to school however, can create sheer panic and overwhelmingly angst. These tweens typically revel in the relief associated with summer. As the first day of school gets closer they become more anxious. This often results in increased irritability, agitation and sometimes feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. If an end of summer vacation precludes the start of the school year, these kids may become increasingly mopey and seemingly unmotivated as the vacation comes to a close.

Back to school shopping trips for school supplies or new clothes and shoes may be particularly brutal for both parent and child. Tweens overwhelmed by back to school anxiety may express countless worries or fears about the new school year. Tweens who generally have difficulty transitioning from situation to situation are more prone to this first day anxiety, as are kids who have a history of having difficulty on the first day of school. Tweens moving up from elementary school to middle school are also particularly prone to back to school angst.

A good way to gauge if a tween is overwhelmed by the idea of going back to school is to talk with him. A parent is best served ‘listening’ not only to the words a tween is saying but by reading his body language. Tweens get embarrassed easily. This may mean that a tween is less likely to be upfront and honest about back to school fears because he may worry that this isn’t ‘normal.’ If he seems annoyed or angry, in response to back to school questioning, it may be a red flag that he has concerns.

What can a parent do to prevent panic on the first day of school?

Taking a step-wise approach to quell back to school anxiety can be quite helpful. All tweens returning to school may benefit from some of these suggestions especially tweens moving up to middle school. What follows are some simple suggestions to ease a tween into the new school year.

Talk through each anxiety

Sometimes the best way to face a fear is to say it out loud. Encourage your tween to discuss the thing or things about going back to school that are causing the anxiety. Offering up examples from your own past can be a helpful as long as you don’t assume your tween is having the same experience. Because tweens are egocentric by nature your tween may turn off if he gets the sense that you think you know how he feels. From his perspective, no one has ever thought or felt the way he does, especially not his parents. Tweens however, turn to their parents for guidance. So offering up a good example can provide reassuring relief . A good way to talk about your own past experience with anxiety for example, is to open with something like this: “I don’t know if this has happens to you, but I remember….” This may be the conversation starter your tween needs to start to face his fears.

Practice can prevent panic

If your tween’s fears are practical such as worry related to opening her locker, or logistical, such as finding her locker and/or classrooms, a little bit of rehearsal can go a long way. Locker anxiety is quite common among tweens in middle school, although it is not something they tend to talk about unless they are asked. If this is a concern for your tween, start by giving her a lock to practice on. If she is concerned about finding her classes and getting to each one on time, as soon as you get her schedule, sit down with her and map it out. Employ the help of an older sibling and/or neighbor who can walk her through the lay of the land on paper or on a computer. Contact the school and find out if you can get in to do at least one walk through prior to opening day. If you can, find out where her locker will be located and have her practice opening and closing it. A little bit of practice can quell anxiety and encourage confidence.

Put together a plan of action

Nothing overcomes anxiety more effectively than taking action against it. Work together to formulate a list of rational responses when your tween is feeling overwhelmed by anxiety. If for example, your tween tends to get anxious in math class because she finds it difficult to understand at times, include something on the list she can do that is not disruptive to other students and does not entail her leaving class. Write down the list on an index card she can keep in her pocket, backpack, and/ or on her cell phone (only if phones are permitted at her school of course). The comfort of having a list to refer to is reassuring.

Seek support from an older sibling or trusted friend

Although you may wish you could go to school with your tween, this is not a realistic option. You can however, turn to an older sibling or trusted peer to provide help. Sometimes the hardest part of the first day of school is walking through the front door. A sibling or friend can help an anxious tween face her fears knowing she is not alone. Ask her partner to keep her distracted by keeping her in conversation.

Engage the help of a point person at the school

Some students find comfort knowing there is someone at the school to whom they can turn if they begin to feel too overwhelmed. Contact administration prior to your tween’s first day of school. Work with them to identify an individual that will serve as a point person. Let your tween know that this individual will be there to help if needed. The best person for the job is a counselor or teacher with whom your tween is familiar. If the assigned individual is not someone your tween knows, see if you can set up a meeting either in person or over the phone so your tween can get acquainted prior to the first day of school. Although your tween may not need to seek this person out, it will be helpful to know he or she is there to offer support and guidance.

The first day of school can be overwhelming for many kids. When back to school angst however, seems something more like overwhelming anxiety, panic or even dread, it is important to address the issue before the start of the school year. A focus on prevention can help anxious tweens get back to school and back into their daily school year routine. Avoid back to school battles before they begin. The tips offered above will hopefully bring calm and confidence to your tween, reassurance that the first day of school is the start of a successful and eventful year.*

* Note: An evaluation by a mental health professional is always recommended. The ongoing support of a mental health professional can be quite beneficial for tweens worried about the first day, and or expressing school anxiety in general.