Hello parents! It is that time of year again…getting your kids ready for back to school! My name is Amanda Gurgel, LMHC specializing in working with adults, children, and teens for over 10 years. I wanted to provide helpful strategies to help you with this major transition of going back to school. As you go over your checklist of things to do, it is important to make sure that they are prepared emotionally too. Anxious feelings or “worrying” are normal and expected during any changes or transitions. This is especially true for young children and teenagers going back to school, when entering a new grade, or starting a new school. Other school-related concerns are with teachers, friends, fitting in, and/or being away from their parents. Prior to the first day of school, your child might start to display different feelings and behaviors. Below are some examples of changes children can experience:
- Temper Tantrum for young children
- Complain of headaches or stomach pains
- Withdrawn, angry, or irritable
- Changes in appetite
- Changes in sleep
How To Handle Back-to-School Worries
Below are a few general strategies parents can use to deal with back-to-school concerns.
- LOOK AFTER THE BASICS: FOOD AND SLEEP
It is difficult to function well when feeling tired or hungry. Anxious children or teens often forget to eat or might not feel hungry. It is helpful to have nutritious snacks available for your child. Also, it is also important to build regular routines, so that life is more predictable for your child. These routines can involve the morning routine, bedtime routine, and eating schedules.
- ENCOURAGE YOUR CHILD TO SHARE HIS OR HER CONCERNS
Children and teens can have worries before school starts. If you notice changes in their behaviors, it is an opportunity to schedule a time and place to talk. Some children feel most comfortable in a private space with your full attention. Children have stress not only during transitions of back to school, but throughout the school year. It is helpful to have regular checkpoints on how they are doing. Ask your child/teen what is making them worried. It can be helpful to have them write it down and scale the worry from 1-10 (1 being the least and 10 being the highest). Tell your child that it is normal to have these concerns, but together you can explore the worry, problem-solve, and plan.
- COACH YOUR CHILD TO PROBLEM-SOLVE AND PLAN!
Children often seek reassurance that “bad” things won’t happen to help reduce their worry. “Don’t worry!” or “Everything will be fine!” are great examples to open the conversation. However, it is important to encourage your child to think of ways to solve their problems. For example, “If (their worry) happens, what could you do?” or “Let’s think of some other ways you could handle this situation.” This gives you the opportunity to coach your child on how to manage stress and problem solve. You will also be helping your child develop the tools he or she needs to cope with unexpected situations that might arise.
Here are a few sample scripts for engaging your child in problem-solving and planning:
- Role-play with your child. Role-playing a certain situation with your child can help him or her make a plan and feel more confident to handle the situation. For example, let your child play the part of the demanding teacher or bullying classmate. Then, model age-appropriate options and responses.
- Focus on the positive aspects! Encourage your child to re-direct attention away from their worries and towards the positives. It is important to have a balance between positive aspects and worries. Ask your child, “What are 2-3 things that you are most excited about on your first day of school?” Most kids can think of something good. Chances are that the fun aspects are simply getting overlooked by repetitive worries.
- Pay attention to your own behavior. Children and teens learn from their parent’s example. Therefore, it is important for you to model the behaviors you want to see. The more confident, solution-focused, and calm you are able to model, the more they will understand there is no reason to be afraid. For example, dropping them off at school or saying goodbye can be a difficult transition. It is important to remain calm and supportive, but do not reward your child’s protests, crying, or tantrums to avoid going to school. Instead, in a calm voice, say: “I can see that going to school is making you feel scared, but you still have to go. Tell me what you are worried about, so we can talk about it.” It is normal for children to feel worried and how you respond will help them find solutions.
Suggestions for a couple of days before school:
- Go to school and familiarize with the transportation setting– walking, driving, or taking the bus. For young children taking the school bus, it is helpful to draw out the bus route, including where the bus goes and how long it takes to get to school. Also, talk about bus safety rules such as staying seated, talking quietly, etc… When children or teens are familiar with their environment and expectations, it can improve their anxious feelings.
- For new students, if it is possible, show your child the classrooms, the cafeteria, bathrooms, and meet their teacher together.
- Ask your child or teen to help choose their outfits for the first week of school. Invite them to select their favorite outfit to wear on the first day.
- Together with your child or teen, pack up the school bag and include snacks and water.
- For younger children who are nervous about being apart from their parents, suggest taking a special object to school that reminds him of home. An endearing note in a child’s lunch can also help with the separation anxiety.
- Most importantly, praise and reward your child for brave behavior
WISHING YOU AND YOUR FAMILY THE BEST LUCK RETURNING TO SCHOOL!