Getting back into the groove for a new school year can be tough for the whole family. Switching gears, changing bed times, meeting new teachers, socializing with different classmates… the list goes on, and when your child has anxiety, these changes can be especially challenging. Teen/Adult Manager Haley Dunn, from Milestones Autism Resources, shares some practical strategies that any family can use to reduce that back-to-school dread.
Get enough sleep and eat a good breakfast. Did a reasonable bedtime go out the window for summer? Establishing a bedtime and having a hearty breakfast can help reduce anxiety because tired and hungry kids are more prone to get anxious. Get them started on the right foot for the day.
Practice the morning school routine ahead of time. This one isn’t just for the sake of the kids, but for us parents, as well. I drive my child to school each day and he depends on me to get him there on time, so getting my routine together helps ease his anxiety about getting to school on time. He also knows the expectations for the morning if we prepare ahead of time. For example, we set out clothes the night before, try to make sure lunch is made (so we’re not rushing in the morning), and have pre-approved activities in the morning (reading, playing with the dog and playing with toys). We try to limit electronics or TV because transitioning from these activities to getting out the door can be hard — for everyone.
Take advantage of open houses and teacher communications. I really appreciate the ease of communicating with teachers through either email or apps like Remind. These are great ways to communicate your child’s anxiety and to give teachers a heads up if your child is feeling especially anxious and in need of additional support that day.
Don’t avoid what your child is anxious about. It’s easy to want to rescue your child from feeling anxious or to help them avoid what they are anxious about. Sometimes when our child is anxious, it can remind us of hard times when we were kids and feeling the same way. Acknowledge their emotions and help them “name them to tame them.” If you haven’t read The Whole Brain Child, I highly recommended it. Here is a clip that talks about the brain, making connections and naming emotions to help tame them.
Remember, telling a person not to worry has never stopped them from worrying. Praise your child for every step toward conquering their fears.
Arrange a playdate with a friend is in their class. Many children worry about their peer interactions and think “Who will I play with at recess?” or “Will I have someone to talk to at lunch?” They may miss friends who are now in another class. Arranging a play date is a great way to help your child connect to their school peers. It will be helpful for your child to make a connection to someone in and out of the classroom. Having a friendly face waiting for you on the bus or at school can help ease that back-to-school anxiety about making new friends.
Have a regular time to touch base. In our house, for better or worse, it’s at bedtime. My son has really opened up when we are getting him settled into bed. I have learned much about my child’s worries about school, his hopes, the funny stuff his teacher says and his interactions with his peers. Sometimes I am tired and just want to tuck him in and say goodnight, but this daily check-in has been imperative to our nightly routine.
Find a time to talk with your child that is free of or has minimal distractions. Simple questions about highs and lows of the day are a great way to get started if this type of check-in is new to you. You can also use a feeling chart; visual prompts are always helpful. Pair the visual with a statement of, “Tell me of a time you were happy today” or “Did you feel sad today? Tell me more about that.”
And when words are too much, a time to simply be with, snuggle and hug your child can be just what they need.
Haley Dunn is the Teen/Adult Manager for Milestones Autism Resources and has been working with individuals with disabilities for 10 years. She also is a licensed professional counselor and is the owner of Bella Vita Counseling in Beachwood. She is passionate about helping teens with learning differences, ADHD and autism find individual success at home and school. Haley has a deep passion for connecting people to their community, whether it is through employment, volunteering or life enrichment activities. Learn more about Haley by visiting her Psychology Today page.