By Dr. Carmen Lalonde and Dr. Stefanie Sugar
The school year is fast upon us… families are returning from vacations and summer camps have come to end. For many youths, the month of August is a time of excitement as they start to turn their mindset from summer break towards the fall. For others, however, it isn’t excitement they feel; It is the anticipatory anxiety of returning to, or starting school, for the first time that fills their final weeks of summer. With children and teenagers, anxiety often presents as worry, agitation, irritability, moodiness, and anger, as well as outright school refusal. For many young people, the idea of resuming school can create a great deal of strain and stress as September approaches and many parents feel helpless and frustrated by the escalating tension in the house. What can parents do to help their children manage their anxiety and prepare for school?
Anxiety is one of the most common issues when it comes to school-related problems, and according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are found in 25.1% of youth between 13 and 18 years. Understanding the connection between anxiety and both school refusal and challenging behaviors at home is the first step to helping parents reduce their children’s worries about school. Here are a few more concrete tips parents can do to help their children get ready:
1. Validate: Validation is the act of making sense of someone else’s feelings, thoughts or behaviors. Be curious about how your child feels about school. Try not to interrupt, problem-solve or anticipate their answers. Just being heard can often feel soothing to children and teens because it lets them know you are there and are not judging them. Basic validation of your child’s or teens worries, thoughts, or concerns is soothing and can often increase the effectiveness of problem solving, later on. Some simple ways to validate your child/teen are; active listening, reflecting back what has been heard, normalizing their experience, and sharing personal stories about similar thoughts/feelings you’ve experienced. Once you have spent some time learning about your youths worries and used validation, problem solving becomes possible and more effective.
2. Prep: For children and teens who struggle with anxiety, change can be difficult. Therefore, doing a lot of prep and discussion about school can not only help reduce worries, it also helps your child learn that their fears are manageable. Learning where their classroom will be, who their teachers are, and going to their school to look at the layout can help decrease what is known as “uncertainty fears,” which are fears of the unknown, and often the root of anxiety. For younger children, another way to engage in effective prep, is to try and obtain a picture of their new teacher, which can reduce uncertainty worries and create a cognitive anchor so that everything does not feel so unfamiliar.
3. Help teens organize and plan an agenda: If your adolescent is transitioning from middle school to high school the idea of having multiple classrooms and class periods can be overwhelming and paralyzing for those who have social anxiety. Current research also shows that individuals who have anxiety often struggle with executive functions such as, organization, planning, and initiation of tasks, which can make transitioning back to school more challenging. If this is the case, take time to sit down with your adolescent to help teach them how to read their schedule, create an agenda, and practice opening a locker. These basic life skills can help your adolescent reduce the amount of planning and cognitive energy they will need during the day, which allows them to have more internal regulation resources available to them, which ultimately helps them to have more energy to manage their anxiety.
4. Ease back into the routine: For children who struggle with early mornings and tend to stay up late during the summer when it doesn’t get dark until later, the shift back to early mornings can be a tough transition for the whole family. Discuss with your child and adolescent that you want to help them get back into the routine of getting up early and provide lots of encouragement. Then, two weeks before school starts, begin waking your teen or child 5-15 minutes earlier each morning. This slow transition into early rising can feel less harsh and will hopefully reduce the battles that can occur when adjusting sleep schedules.
5. Create a coping plan of strategies: For children and youth who require coping skills to reduce their worries and nervousness, explore with your child what helps them feel calm by creating a “coping bag” to keep in their backpack or desk. Music, deep breathing, funny memes, stress balls, fidget toys, gum (if permitted in school), essential oils that are soothing, and motivational quotes are all simple strategies that can be kept in their desk or backpack to help cope with their anxiety.
Other simple strategies to support your child and teen include:
6. Prepare a healthy breakfast for the first day of school.
7. Connect your child or teen with peers that they go to the same school with.
8. Ensure a good night’s sleep before the start of school.
9. Begin to adjust screen time two weeks before the start of school to help your child or teen ease back into managing their time differently.
When in doubt, validate and listen to your child’s concerns. Sometimes just having someone that understands our internal thoughts and worries, can be enough to reduce the anxiety. For more helpful tips and strategies check back throughout the month or join our mailing list to be notified when we post a new blog!
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