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Back to School Anxiety Solutions

A Q and A with Dr. Tamar Chansky

Summer is quickly drawing to a close and as you gather your back to school supplies, don’t forget to equip your child with some good tips for making it a great, anxiety-free transition (for both of you). Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Question: What are the main sources of anxiety for young children around starting a new school year?

Answer: Anxiety is about what is unknown or new, so children of any age are worried about things that are unfamiliar or that they haven’t mastered yet. For young children who are just starting school, everything is new: the building, the teacher, the routines, the wake up time, the longer school day. Same thing happens even with kids who have a year or two of school under their belt. They hear some idea that school is hard, or that the expectations are completely different in, say, second grade and they think: “Yikes! Can I really do that?” The answer of course is yes, but they don’t and really can’t realize that yet. That’s because until they get there to dig in and see first hand, they’ve only got their imagination to rely on, and the imagination is known to fill in the blanks with some pretty scary (and unreliable) answers.

first day of school fears

Question: What’s the best way to help my child with back to school anxiety?

Answer: Make sure to normalize for your child that everyone feels nervous before school, even the teachers! Here’s your opportunity to teach your child about the differences between worry thoughts and wise thoughts. Using finger puppets, or even just using your two hands as two different voices, teach your child flexibility by playing with what worry would sound like. Start with the teacher’s worry (it’s easier to learn a new emotional intelligence skill when it’s not about you): the worry side says, (in a funny voice): “Oh no! Will I do a good job teaching the children, will I make it fun, will I run out of chalk?” Then ask your child what the teacher could say to help herself calm down. Together, come up with the alternate version of the story: “I’m a good teacher, I’ll do a good job, it’s always fun to teach kids, and… don’t be silly, there’s always more chalk in the supply closet!”

Now that your child gets the idea of the two tracks of the mind, she’s ready to apply it to her own fears. Don’t assume you know what your child is worrying about, though, because you may inadvertently plant some new ideas. Instead, ask: “What’s worry telling you about school? What’s the thing you are afraid of?” Then switch over to the other puppet, or hand, or the other side of the mind and say, “What do you think is really going to happen?” “Let’s ask your thinking brain for some good answers!” “Worry always makes things sound like that, let’s teach it the facts!”

Finally, remember that worry is fueled by an active imagination, so to “keep it real” help your child get some data: visit the school, play in the playground, peek into the classroom or even help to decorate the bulletin boards with the teacher if you have a chance. Do some “dress rehearsals” of the new morning routine at home, so your child sees how it will work. Practice goodbye routines; for fun and a little added flexibility, switch off roles. Give your child the chance to be the parent, not only will they feel more confident seeing what it’s like to be in charge, but you may learn some good lines from your child for how to say a clean-break goodbye.

Question: What's the tipping point from appropriate fear to problematic anxiety for back to school anxiety, and fears in general?

Answer: In terms of back to school fears specifically, most children settle in to the transition to the school year within about a month. If your child is becoming more upset in the mornings, or refusing to go to school, listen to your child’s specific fears and concerns and then check in with the teacher. The teacher may have some clues about what is hard for your child. And sometimes a child’s fears can look like a lack of cooperation, and a teacher’s response to that can only reinforce the fears. It may be that some good teamwork and sharing of information can help create a sense of safety and continuity for your child and help him over the hurdle.

Fears and worries are a normal part of growing up for kids. At any given point, most young children have an average of 2-3 fears. They may fear things like: dogs, or thunderstorms or even just the sound of the vacuum cleaner. It is human nature to want to avoid things that we are afraid of, and children can be great at letting you know—loud and clear—that they are too scared to do something! As parents, our role is to help our children correct their misperceptions (e.g., all dogs want to bite, all teachers are mean, if you go outside you will definitely get stung by a bee) that are fueling the avoidance, so that, equipped with the facts, they will be more willing to approach the feared situation one step at a time.

When children are willing to work with you by taking your good explanations and reassurance and stretching their comfort zone, by, for example, looking at the doggy in the shop window, waving at the neighbor’s dog, and eventually saying hi when Spot’s owner has him clearly on a leash, then it was just a phase and your child is on his way working through his fears. If however, your child becomes more upset (crying, clinging, having trouble sleeping, or sleeping independently) when you try to discuss or work on the fear, or the fear and avoidance seems to be intensifying or even spreading to other situations, this may be more than a phase and you and/or your child may benefit from professional consultation with a child anxiety expert.

Question: What is an appropriate amount of pushing that a parent should do to encourage their child to try new things (activities, sports, classes, etc)?

Answer: Parents often wonder, “should I push my child when he doesn’t want to try something new?”

Rather than pushing, talk to your child and find out which parts are hard or scary, then brain storm how to break down the challenge to smaller steps, or clear up a misperception of the consequences of that step, and in so doing, turn what was frightening into an opportunity for mastery and success. Sometimes however, when a child is simply not going to budge, it may be that there are other issues at play. For example, if you are insisting that your child play a team sport, but the competition and pressure clashes with their temperament, it may be time for you to be flexible. Maybe there is another way for your child to stay active (if this is your goal) besides a team sport—like riding bikes or accompanying you when you walk the dog, or, if the goal for you is more about working together, drama or dance classes may offer that opportunity. Sometimes if you can show flexibility and patience, you may be surprised that next year, with the pressure off, your child is ready to snap into action.

Happy school year everybody! Remember, transitions are temporary, so take a deep breath, exhale, and look forward to the great feeling of settling in that awaits you just a little bit further down the road.

©Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., 2012. Originally published at