The end of summer brings about an assortment of mixed feelings. For families with school aged children one of those feelings is often anxiety. Both parents and children alike may be worried about the new school year, and for many those worries can be tough to handle.
A little nervousness as the school year begins is normal. Both parents and kids will have concerns about the new expectations, academic challenges, social environment and managing the new, likely hectic, schedule. But when does school anxiety become more than a little nervousness and what do you need to do when it does?
Kids of all ages can experience anxiety when going back to school. For most it is the fear of the unknown and concern that they will somehow fail at their assigned tasks. These worries may not always be expressed verbally, but rather through actions, behaviors, or physical symptoms. Children may suddenly develop a variety of ailments like stomach aches, headaches, or restless sleep. Or they may act out, becoming angry, oppositional or withdrawn.
It is easy to want talk to them about why they are acting the way they are and try to get them to communicate about it, but generally kids do not want to open up. And at young ages many won’t be able to pinpoint the reasons. Instead try giving them opportunities to express their feelings in a physical way, such as game play or a creative activity like art. It can also help to do what you can to make their environment and circumstances more comfortable.
If your child is struggling with anxiety related to school, try some of the following:
- Talk in positive terms. Children listen to everything you say and the way you say it (even if you don’t think so). Make sure you talk about school in the most positive manner. Highlight the cool new things that the year will bring and perhaps relate it to your own personal enjoyment of school. Watch out for talking in terms like, “math is so hard this year,” “social studies bored me to tears,” or “P.E was the worst.” Hearing you talk like this will give them unspoken permission to see things the same way and not give school a chance.
- Point out the fun. Each year brings new opportunities. Get excited for and with your child over these things. New field trips, new subjects, and new projects can all be made fun. Your enthusiasm will be noticed and remembered.
- Help them find friends. Social anxiety is a big issue for many kids, especially if they are naturally shy. Encourage new friendships by setting up play dates, after school activities, or enrolling your child in new activities. If you have a chance, you might even pay attention to the kids in the classroom or playground that look like they would be a good fit as a friend. Suggesting that your son or daughter might have things in common and would enjoy them might give them some direction. Be careful about being too overbearing about this though. Trying to choose your child’s friends can backfire.
- Talk to the teacher. A conversation with the teacher about your child’s anxiety can help as well. Teachers generally like to know when a child is having difficulties. Most teachers will work with you and your son or daughter to ensure the environment feels comfortable and safe for them.
Anxiety symptoms will likely go away within the first week or so, but for some anxiety can be more serious. Social pressures, fear of bullying, and even the many news stories regarding school safety can affect children deeply and cause problems that go on for some time.
If nothing you have tried works and you are still dealing with debilitating anxiety in your child, you may need to seek help from your family physician or a counselor. Anxiety issues in children are on the rise and while most will get through things with family support, some will need more.
As parents we want the best and happiest experiences for our kids. Childhood is supposed to be fun, formative and educational. When dealing with an anxious or constantly worried child and your efforts to alleviate the problems aren’t working, it can be difficult to know what to do. Don’t discount the experience of those people who work with your child on a regular basis. Teachers and principals are good resources. They may not be able to solve the problems, but it is likely that they can help point you in the right direction for assistance if you need it.
Whether it is kindergarten or college, anxiety at the start of a new school year is normal. You may not remember (or maybe you remember all too well), but you probably experienced it as well. No matter if it is short-lived or more serious your child will need you to be patient and supportive as they work through things. Take comfort in knowing that you are not alone and that it will likely to get better as their comfort level with the new environment grows.