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How to Prepare Your Child for a Successful Return to School

Part 2: What to do if your child has worries about school re-opening.

Key points

  • Reassuring and empowering children helps them work through back-to-school anxiety.
  • Laughter can help reduce stress, so try playing games that will get your child giggling.
  • Facing their problems with support helps children develop resources to manage concerns.
Konstantin Yuganov/AdobeStock
Source: Konstantin Yuganov/AdobeStock

In our last post, we introduced your game plan for a successful return to school. In this post, we will discuss the final few steps to help both you and your child feel prepared to return to school. After listening to your child's fear:

Reassure

  • "I have loved being home with you, and I will never be too busy for you."
  • "The school has very carefully sanitized every inch of the building and the playground."

Empower

"Hmm ... I wonder what you could do if that happens? It's OK to feel that waylots of kids do. It might feel scary, but it wouldn't be the end of the world. I think you could handle it, if we think about it in advance and you feel prepared. You're pretty resourceful! What could you do to help yourself?"

Help problem-solve

"I wonder what you could do to connect with one of the kids you like, before you are back at school next week? Maybe we can have a play date with your friend this weekend."

And, after you've listened as much as you can ...

Invite laughter

Laughter decreases the stress hormones circulating in the body, actually decreasing feelings of anxiety. So to reduce anxiety, play games that get your child giggling.

  • Play bucking bronco with her on your back, so she shrieks with laughter as you lurch around the room trying to toss her off.
  • Play airplane and zoom him wildly around the house.
  • Put your palms against each other and let her push you across the room, giving just enough resistance to make it fun.

Go for any kind of play other than tickling that gets your child giggling, with as much warmth as possible. (Tickling doesn't seem to release stress hormones, and often makes kids more fearful because they aren't in control of it.)

Separation games are also useful, if part of your child's anxiety about school starting is about separating from you. One game is Please Don't Leave Me. When you have been reading or snuggling with him and he starts to get off your lap, pull him back to you and tell him how much you love holding him, and to please not go away from you ever and you want to hold him always. Keep your voice light and playful rather than needy so he feels free to pull away, and keep scooping him back to you and mock begging him to stay. The point of this is to heal those feelings inside him of being worried to let you go again, now that he will have do without you at school. In this game, he gets to push you away and reassure YOU that's it's OK for him to leave.

Another terrific game for separation anxiety is the Bye Bye game. It's a simple version of Hide and Seek that triggers just a little separation anxiety, just enough to get her giggling. Say " Let's play Bye-bye. If you want me, yell 'Peanut Butter '" (or whatever she would think is funny). Then hide behind the couch or the door for just a moment before YOU yell, "Peanut Butter," and run out and hug her. Say " I missed you too much to leave! OK, I will be brave! Let me try that again ." and go hide again. Again, come back out before she yells for you, which should get her giggling, especially if you play act being silly and excessively worried. Keep playing this, with you trying to yell first—and not really leaving—as long as she is giggling. Again, this game helps your child to face her anxiety about being separated from you, but in a safe way. And since you are the one expressing fear, she can reassure you, which helps her feel reassured as well.

I'm sure you can come up with more rough-housing games that get your child giggling. Just notice what makes your child laugh and do more of it, no matter how silly it is. It doesn't even have to be explicitly about separation. All giggling defuses anxiety. The more giggling the better when there's been so much fear and anxiety in the past year.

Is the return to school a challenge for most children, parents, and teachers? Yes! But when we face problems and have enough support, we develop the inner resources to manage those problems. That's how we develop resilience, not to mention new skills and capabilities. So take a deep breath and remind yourself: My child can do hard things with enough support. And, so can you.

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