August marks the end of summer and for some families, it is really hard to enjoy the last days of summer knowing school anxieties are right around the corner.
For some kids, just getting on the bus or sitting in their classroom triggers feelings of insecurity, fear and anxiety. They also can experience anxiety for a myriad of other reasons, like concern over being bullied or judged by peers. There might be a fear because they do not want to be separated from their parents or other caregivers for a long period of time. Some children feel discomfort in the classroom environment due to loud noises or having to sit for long periods of time.
The best way to help children who are experiencing anxiety is by modeling appropriate coping skills and normalizing some of their reactions. Shannon Ward, pediatric therapist, suggests parents share their own experience by saying, “‘I was also nervous on the first day of school when I was your age. Here’s how I coped with it…’ Validate the feelings, but do not enable repeated avoidance behaviors.”
Children should still attend school because consistently avoiding school will only increase your child’s worries and further reinforce fears. The following are some responses to help kids cope with the school day:
- Parents can reassure kids by telling them it’s normal to have fears and worries, but shift gears and change the conversation to discuss problem-solving and how to handle feelings of anxiety and fear. Ask your child questions like, “If the worst happens, what could you do?” or “What are some ways you could handle the situation?” This gives children the opportunity to develop coping skills in a safe environment. Your child also will be able to gain the skill of identifying real and imagined fears, and how to address them calmly.
- Parents are their kids’ top teachers and role models. They take cues from you, so the more confidence and comfort parents can exhibit for their kids, the more their children will respond positively to otherwise stressful situations.
- Role-playing with kids in a safe space is a great way to practice stress-inducing scenarios and what to do. Let your child play the part of the bully or anxiety-inducing element, while you model the appropriate responses or coping techniques to manage the situation. Then switch roles — this is where the child plays themself and has a chance to put into practice the good coping skills just modeled. Role-play different situations and scenarios enough times for your child to feel comfortable.
It is normal for some kids to feel a bit shy or worried about a new schedule at the start of the school year, but the back-to-school transition and jitters should gradually diminish over a few weeks.
When to Seek Professional Help
Anxiety manifests itself in a number of ways in different age groups. In younger children, parents may hear physical complaints like a stomach ache or headache. Kids may experience disturbed sleep or a fear of sleeping alone, too. Other signs are extreme changes in behavior like overeating, not eating enough (exhibited by a dramatic weight loss), or nervous behavior like picking at skin without medical cause. These behaviors could indicate the need to seek professional mental health help.
Shannon Ward, pediatric therapist, notes “It may be beneficial to seek counseling services if you notice a significant decline in functioning and/or the symptoms are impacting your child’s day-to-day functioning.”
Effective forms of treatment implement systematic desensitization or gradual exposure therapy.
For older kids and teens, Ward suggests “cognitive behavior therapy to examine the source and patterns of their anxious thinking style.”