Back to School Anxiety
Most children are stressed by the advent of going back to school after summer pleasures. But stress is not the same as back to school anxiety which is identified by avoidance of school preparation, avoidance of talking about school and irritability about the topic. Children who are naturally anxious or have anxiety disorders are the most fragile when it comes to anticipatory anxiety about school.
Depending on the developmental age of the child, the worries are varied. The kindergartner has little notion of school except for their experiences in preschool. If the preschool was structured with academics and play, they come prepared knowing their letters and numbers, how to write their names, and how to socialize in small groups. The schools that prepare children mostly with play of the kids’ direction, actually prepare the children best of all because it builds their ability to share, socialize, and express themselves in many ways. If rote learning and academics prevail undervaluing play, these children are at a disadvantage for the critical thinking skills one hopes that they will slowly obtain such as flexibility, impulse control, empathy, learning the impact of their actions on others, frustration tolerance, tolerance of mistakes and failures, and problem solving in a collaborative way.
Children entering kindergarten or any new school, should be brought to the school to visit prior to September as often as needed. Perhaps they will get a chance to walk through the building, play on the play ground and even meet some teachers or the principal in a friendly atmosphere of exploration and discovery.
Each grade brings new anxiety as the children wonder about the style of the teacher and the children they do or do not know ahead of time. Play dates before school begins to get them prepared to be with these youngsters in an unpressured way.
Knowing the bus route and who may be on the bus to sit with eases anxiety for those with social angst. If the child has had arguments or there has been bullying the previous year, finding out whether the child will encounter those children again helps prepare him.
Children with behavior problems who lack impulse control for example, need to be prepared for school. Finding out the teacher’s style of discipline is helpful to prepare the child in a positive way. In integrated classrooms children will be exposed to many different children’s temperaments and tolerance for these differences can be talked about ahead. Most children are empathic with others with disabilities or problematic behavior as long as they are not targeted or scapegoated themselves.
Unless the child has had problems in school before, it’s best not to present the possible upsets that can happen, but just wait and see being an available listener to the anxious child who comes up distressed by something that occurred during the day.
Separation anxiety can be most prevalent in early grades but can reappear with a change of school, such as middle school and even high school. Making sure the children know where you will be during the day and when they will see you again helps considerably. Try not to set a pattern of frequent texting so that kids can find their way on their own without prompting and hovering by anxious parents during the day. School is the child’s place for work and play. The adult has his own life until after school when he or she is available to talk and chat about the daily events each afternoon.
Children with clear anxiety problems such as panic attacks, obsessive compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety, social anxiety and separation anxiety should begin treatment before school begins so they have the resources of adults to depend on as they encounter different experiences during the day.
If medications are required for any reason, have them worked out long before school starts including psychotropic medications for ADHD, anxiety, depression, and dysregulated emotions. Try to make nothing new arise as school starts other than new teachers and students. All else should be familiar.
Children who are in new neighborhoods or big geographic changes are best off making these changes early in the summer, so they can be familiar with their surroundings ahead of time.
Adolescents experience mostly social anxiety needing to experiment with different social groups, learning the ins and outs of the importance or lack of importance of popularity, a circle of friends, or a few loyal best friends. When peer pressure is experienced during the summer months, it can be discussed with regard to sex and drugs. Otherwise, wait and see what the child experiences.
If the school is in a difficult neighborhood where there is violence and security measures in the school, simply prepare the child about the security measures he will encounter so he is not scared by them. Play down watching the news about violent events in schools because although the media focuses on them, it is less common than expected.
During the summer take small problems and teach your child how to problems solve. Learn what is on their minds by attentive listening without interruption to see their beliefs, ideas, interests, intentions, and feelings. Don’t offer ready solutions but be a sounding board.
Children who feel understood gain confidence and are most prepared for school. Praise for specific skills and aptitudes help build self-assurance. General praise like, “good job” “that’s cool” often go unheeded because they are not particular enough. Help kids know their assets.
Most important for the anxious child is a strong parent-child bond that the child can return to every day to explore their experiences at school. If you don’t frequently talk to your child about his or her day, summer time is the time to start. Then this becomes a familiar engagement between parent and child that the child can trust in during the school year.
Older kids often have summer reading for courses they will be taking. Don’t wait until the last week to get this in. Read the books yourselves so you can discuss them and provide quiet time where kids can enjoy being by themselves completing these summer assignments. Make them positive by discussing their interests or even boredom with the assignments. Help as needed.
Children who have academic difficulties should be helped to keep up with some academics during the summer to prevent regression. This can be done playfully by reading frequently to children who can read, doing puzzles and math problems on computer videos, and engaging kids in kitchen and yard activities that require some math skills so they become part of life itself.
Juniors and seniors in high school anticipate with anxiety college preparation from their grades that are important, to their investments in specific activities, to the applications themselves. Visit colleges during the junior year before the pressures of interviews begin. During the summer months before the senior year try and assist your teen in doing their resumes and essays so they aren’t so overloaded in the fall. Kids anxious about college tend to avoid these tasks, so don’t get into arguments about them, just offer to help.
The key to helping kids feel they belong in a familiar place such as school is to build their confidence during the summer months with specific praise, noting their assets, and being a great listener—the most important job of all. If your child knows he or she can come to you to listen to their pleasures and upsets, they go to school with you inside of their minds to assist them throughout the day. They will remember that you said it takes time to adjust to a new grade and not to feel pressured to know your way around perfectly, understand all the teachers say, and make friends. A month or two into school you can feel more comfortable. Don’t expect it right away.