What You Can Do About Back to School Anxiety

Anxiety over starting the school year can happen at any age from preschoolers to college and is a normal phenomenon. Meri Wallace, LCSW, says the excitement of a new backpack or lunchbox or a new outfit for the first day of school can be drowned out by the separation anxiety in the beginning. Preschoolers are frightened about being on their own, but they gradually learn to get help from the teacher, and just knowing that she will be picked up after lunch, so that she has a specific time to look forward to, can be a benefit.

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Separation anxiety is accompanied by sadness and anger; when it’s time to say goodbye, she may cry or have a tantrum. Then the parent feels guilty leaving so it’s a good time to think of the positives of nursery school which include learning how to share, take turns, solve problems, not to mention the early academic skills that will help them in kindergarten. Ms. Wallace offers some back to school anxiety suggestions including giving the child time and patiently working through his feelings with him so that he soon is eager to get there and is interested in his friends. Some of her additional suggestions are:

• Acknowledge and accept her emotions by verbalizing, “You’re sad, because it’s hard to leave Mommy.”

• Reassure him that he’ll be fine there, and show your confidence in him so that he’ll feel safe.

• Establish a goodbye routine, such as always waving through the window, to give your child some sense of control over the departure.

• Call the school after you leave to make sure that your child has settled down.

• If possible, set up a play date with another child in the class before school starts. Having one friend at school will help her feel more relaxed.

• Explain that children go to preschool to learn how to play with others and to do fun things.

• Tell him what you’ll be doing while he’s at school. Say that you’ll be working so that your child won’t think you’ll be home all morning playing with the new baby.

• Playing school with your child can be a big help, role playing with dolls to act out the school routine and saying goodbye.

• Be sure to examine your own sadness about the experience, and make sure it’s not aggravating the situation.

At year end, your child will have enhanced his ability to function independently, to get along with friends, and to tell you when he’s angry, all basic ingredients of living a satisfying life.

Susan Stiffelman, a family therapist and credentialed teacher, says that older children may have unfounded worries about what might happen at home while they’re in school – tornadoes, kidnapping, the dog running away. If so, allow them to vent so that their imagination doesn’t run wild with worries, and expose them to facts through books and videos to reassure them that these things aren’t so scary. Model calmness. If you react with panic to something unexpected, they’ll likely react accordingly, because children take their cues from adults around them. Limit their exposure to television, movies, and the news that can feed their anxiety.

Ms. Stiffelman suggests that you also introduce Little Fear Guy. Tell your child that we all have a voice inside that helps keep us safe. Ask her to imagine this part of her as a little fellow who lives on her shoulder, Little Fear Guy. If this little man thinks we even might be in danger, he sounds the alarm to make her feel afraid so that she can take action to stay safe. But LFG takes his job so seriously that sometimes he sounds the alarm and we get scared when we’re not in any danger at all. Sometimes we have to ask our LFG where he gets his information. These measures should help her feel more comfortable especially when it comes to back to school anxiety.

According to Jentana Lee Dabbs, some kids and teens are excited to return to school, but others feel great stress and anxiety, just as real as adult stress and anxiety. Many kids try to deal with this pain on their own, which can lead to dangerous habits in the future if not dealt with in the present. Stress weakens the immune system resulting in sick days; it slows brain development causing low academic performance or ADD/ADHD symptoms. Some teens choose unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as rebellion, drugs, alcohol, sex, and cigarettes. Stress and anxiety from school also causes isolation, low self-worth, and lack of self-confidence.

Ms. Dabbs advises to look for signs of being withdrawn, increased escape in television, computer, or online games, stomachaches or headaches, sleep problems, difficulty concentrating, moodiness, development of a nervous habit (nail-biting, hair-twirling, leg-shaking), refusal to go to school or getting into trouble at school, or frequent crying. These signs could mean there are problems with a bully, heavy homework load, or a teacher. Show compassion, and speak to your child as a friend to find out what’s happening. Help find a solution, such as a tutor, teacher meeting, changing classes, or a martial arts class. Ensure your child is eating high protein, low sugar meals with B vitamins, fish oils, and multi vitamins. Show your child ways to cope with stress, such as art work, writing, talking, breathing, and meditation. Look for books, CDs, and DVDs on stress management for kids and teens. Try to keep your child laughing to ease stress.

Back to school anxiety is real and not to be ignored or taken lightly. There are several positive measures to take in order to ease the pain and problems for your child.

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