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Going back to school after the summer break is a big transition for kids of all ages. While it can be full of excitement, this time of the year can also trigger feelings of anxiety. Anxious feelings are perfectly normal and to be expected during transitions, particularly as the summer winds down and back-to-school shopping and planning take center stage.
Anticipatory anxiety causes many young children to lose sleep at night as the school year approaches. This is particularly true of kids already prone to worry, kids who typically struggle with transitions and kindergarten students entering school for the first time. There are a lot of unknowns when it comes to entering a new school year, and this can result in irrational and intrusive thoughts as kids cycle through their worry lists each day. Although all kids are individuals and have their own worries, there are a few common concerns that tend to trigger back-to-school anxiety for kids:
- Which teacher will I get?
- What if my teacher doesn't like me?
- What if my teacher is too hard?
- Will my friends be in my class?
- Where will I sit for lunch?
- What if I get lost at school?
- What if I'm late?
- What if no one likes me?
- What if I don't fit in?
- What if the work is too difficult?
- What if I miss Mom and Dad?
Whether your child worries out loud or internalizes his feelings, anticipatory anxiety can trigger physical complaints. Headaches, stomachaches, exhaustion and other body aches are common among little worriers. Anxiety also triggers temper tantrums, clingy behavior, excessive tears, sleep disturbance (nightmares are very common) and low frustration tolerance. Back-to-school anxiety can upset the balance of the entire family, so it's important to help children through this difficult transition as soon as symptoms of anxiety appear.
Prioritize the basics
It's exceedingly difficult to cope with stress and anxiety when you are sleep deprived, hungry and/or off schedule. Anxious children tend to have difficulty falling and staying asleep, which can lead to exhaustion. They also have a tendency to forget to eat, don't feel hungry often due to their worries and struggle to feel centered when they lack a routine. It's essential to address basic needs when helping little ones cope with anxiety.
A structured eating and sleeping routine helps kids know when to eat and what to expect. Ideally, the routine should be established during the break and continue throughout the year. In fact, a solid routine can help with all kinds of transitions, from holiday breaks to travel to unexpected roadblocks.
Establish morning, evening and bedtime routines for the family. Try to consider the school schedule (lunch, recess) when factoring in meals and downtime to create balance for your child. Err on the side of early when it comes to bedtime, and discuss obstacles to sleep with your child to help problem solve. Nighttime anxiety is common among worriers, and some kids need very specific routines to help them fall asleep at night. Hint: Even older elementary children can benefit from strategies such as extra night lights and relaxing music.
The worry list
It's important to encourage your child to verbalize his feelings. Worries trapped in the mind all day tend to grow exponentially when the lights go down. Normalize your child's worries by sharing your own childhood back-to-school worries, and make a worry list to help get your child's feelings out.
Using a large poster board, write down each worry your child expresses about school. No worry is too big or too small to make the list. Keep the list in your office or bedroom, away from your child's sleeping space. In doing this, you can take on your child's worries during the nighttime hours. Add to it as new worries arise.
Once each day, help your child attempt to problem solve. Have your child choose a worry from the list and come up with three solutions to the problem. This gives your child a feeling of control over worries. When he learns that he can take control and solve problems independently, his worries will shrink in size.
Practice makes perfect (or proficient, anyway.) Role play is one the best strategies for frequent worriers. Intrusive thoughts trigger feelings of helplessness in children. When worries feel huge and overwhelming, they become paralyzed with fear. They don't work to resolve their worries because they are stuck in a negative thought pattern. Practicing ways to solve problems that might arise throughout the school day helps children feel competent and in control.
Using the worry list that your child created, come up with a list of potential scenarios. Assign roles (remember to switch and have your child play both roles) and act out each scary school scenario with your child. Get creative. Be silly. And remember to assist when your child is stuck. Role play is meant to help your child work through difficult feelings, and your child will likely need your guidance along the way.
Avoid false promises
Worriers love reassurance. They want to know that their teachers will love them, they will have plenty of friends and the school work will be a breeze. While it's tempting to provide those reassurances to your child in the moment, the truth is that you don't know what will happen next. You can't predict the future. False promises are a set-up for disappointment and increased stress. Try focusing on your child's strengths, instead.
Meet intrusive thoughts with positive counter thoughts. When your child expresses worries about friends, for example, help your child identify his existing friends and what they like about him. Focusing on the positive and helping your child replace negative thoughts with positive ones helps build your child up and reminds him that he is capable of handling whatever comes his way, even if it isn't exactly what he wants.