Helping Your Child (and Yourself) Combat Back-to-School Anxiety
It is hard to believe that summer is coming to a close and another atypical school year is upon us due to the Covid-19 pandemic. You or your child may be feeling some back-to-school anxiety as you anticipate what things will be like this year. Masks, no masks, vaccines, no vaccines, quarantine rules, in-person learning, virtual learning, it is all a lot to take on.
Returning to school can cause anxious feelings even in a non-pandemic year with concerns over schoolwork, friendships, social interaction, teachers, getting to classes, etc. Combined with pandemic stressors you might be wondering how you can help your child and yourself combat back-to-school anxiety.
First of all, know that whatever you are feeling right now is ok. There is no “normal” way to feel as school begins. Your worries, your fears, even your relief is all valid.
Combating back-to-school anxiety may feel overwhelming but there are some ways to help ease emotions and make the transition a bit easier.
Here are some tips to help you and your child:
1.) Recognize your child may be struggling and validate their feelings.
Your child may be feeling lots of different emotions right now and they might not know how to verbalize what they are feeling. Look for signs in their behavior that may indicate they are struggling, things like crying, complaining of stomachaches, irritability, or clinginess. Validate those feelings by telling them you know it might be hard, they might be scared, and that is ok. Reassure them by telling them you will help them and together you will get through these challenging times.
2.) Try to stay positive around your child.
We all have moments of struggle but it is important to try to stay positive around your child, especially regarding areas they are concerned about. Your emotions, the words you say, can all impact how your child is feeling. If you are frequently verbalizing your fear over your child returning to in-person learning, then your child will likely be afraid as well. This is a great time to model positive coping skills for your child. If you tell them you are also afraid, show them how you are coping with it — focusing on the positive, taking deep breaths, practicing mindfulness, etc.
3.) Now is a great time to teach your child about mindfulness.
The underlying emotion of anxiety is uncertainty. Those feelings of your heart racing, breathing rapidly, unable to concentrate, not being able to sleep, can all be linked to the fact that we just don’t know what the future holds. We are afraid because we don’t know what the school year will be like. We don’t know if we will get sick or have to miss school or struggle with childcare. We only know what is happening right here and right now.
Mindfulness can be a great tool to combat anxiety. If your child, or yourself, are experiencing moments of anxiety teach them how to pay attention to where they are currently rather than letting their thoughts run away. Teach your child to identify when they are feeling scared or sad and then give them a coping solution— find a friend, talk to a teacher, breathe, walk to the bathroom, count to 10, feel the fabric of their shirt between their fingers, etc. These are skills that they can take with them throughout life.
4.) Practice routines ahead of time.
In 2020, normal routines fell apart as many kids didn’t have to catch the school bus or log in to computers until later in the day. Prepare your child for heading back to school by stating their routine a week or two before school starts. Have them start getting up early, go to bed earlier, getting ready for the day, getting their stuff together, and leaving the house so they aren’t caught off guard the first week of school. Being prepared will make one less thing to worry about.
5.) Consider sending a memento or note to school with your child.
Notes in your child’s lunchbox, a family photo, or a special keychain, can give your child something to comfort them if they get anxious at school. These items can help provide some calm and connection for you and your child during the day. If they get upset they can reach for the memento to calm them down.
6.) Acknowledge concerns and evaluate options.
This is a tricky time for parents. What is the right thing to do for your child? Should you make them wear a mask even if the school doesn’t require it? What about vaccines? Should you be sending your child at all? Can they participate in sports or is it too dangerous? Take some time to think through your concerns and your options. Talk it out with a significant other, a trusted friend, and your child. Develop a plan or solution that works for your family.
7.) Communicate with teachers.
If your child is having a particularly hard time, tell the teacher. If you develop a plan, let the teacher in on it. Reach out to social workers and nurses so that everyone is on the same page. Maybe even arrange a weekly check-in meeting so you can get more information about how your child is doing and ease your worries.
There is no doubt this year will again pose many challenges for families as they face back-to-school anxiety. Do your best to keep things positive and get help when you need it. If you or your child is struggling with how to cope, you may consider reaching out to a licensed mental health professional or counselor for assistance. A counselor or therapist can help you develop a plan that fits your life.
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