Back to school jitters?
Written by Staff
How you can help calm your kids’ anxiety about going back to the classroom.
As September approaches, so too do those butterflies in the stomach and back-to-school jitters. But while most children are prepared—if a little unenthusiastic—about returning to the classroom, others deal with significant levels of stress and anxiety. Making new friends, entering a new school and coping with academic pressure can all contribute to anxiety, which can actually manifest into physical symptoms like stomachaches and headaches, especially in younger children.
“About one out of 10 children has quite a bit more anxiety than the average child,” says Dr. John Walker, a clinical psychologist and director of the anxiety disorder program at St. Boniface General Hospital. However, there are ways you can help alleviate your children’s anxiety.
The most important thing you can do for a child experiencing anxiety is to acknowledge their fears are real to them. You want to maintain an open line of communication—talk about what’s worrying them and how they might deal with it. Let them know they can always talk to you—sometimes, just talking about things out loud with a parent may be enough to soothe their nerves. You don’t have to have solutions to all of their problems.
Another often-ignored factor is sleep. In the weeks before school starts, gradually have your child start getting out of bed at the same time as on a regular school day. “The body clock is influenced by the ‘getting up’ time, not when you go to bed,” says Dr. Walker. Trying to change their sleep schedule too abruptly may cause them to be tired or easily upset.
Sending a child off to their first day of school is an emotional (and photo-worthy) moment for any parent. But months of build-up can add to your child’s anxiety, as they often pick up on and reflect the anxiety they are feeling from their parents. Acknowledge the anxiety but don’t dwell on it—focus on the positive and make sure they know you’ll be waiting for them when they get off the school bus.
Fear of the unknown can also hold children back from a successful first day. Help your child connect with the school by visiting it before classes start. If possible, arrange for your child to meet their teacher, who can take them on a tour of the classroom and school. “If a child is very anxious, it doesn’t hurt to visit a few times,” says Dr. Walker. “Familiarity really helps with anxiety.”
Transitioning from elementary to middle school can add to the already-stressful pre-teen years. Different classes, a higher workload and social pressures can all make their mark and cause anxiety.
Make sure you normalize your child’s feelings, reassuring them that everyone feels a little nervous. Talk about school regularly so you hear about your child’s expectations. Remind them you are always there to listen so they know they can come to you, and recognize the signs that something may be amiss: major shifts in friendships, sleeping and eating habits, attitude and behaviour.
Another tip: “Try to connect your child with school friends during the summer,” suggests Dr. Walker. “Make sure your child has the opportunity to play with other children and see their friends.”
High school can be tough, plain and simple. In addition to the pressure to do well academically, teens face a growing amount of responsibility and the demands of fitting in with their peers, as well as the development of their own identities. It’s no wonder, then, that the start of high school can bring with it an entirely new set of anxieties.
It’s crucial to establish a good rapport with your teen. Teens often hide or deny that anything is bothering them when asked. Talk to your teen about their friends, interests and school—get them to open up so if they do have problems, with anxiety or anything else, they come to you too.
You can also make school prep fun by planning a shopping outing so they can pick out school supplies and clothing. “Getting supplies and clothing will help them gear up for school in a positive way,” says Dr. Walker.
Though most children and teens can overcome their fears with the help of a parent, some may require additional help. Serious untreated anxiety can lead to problems later in life, so if your child still exhibits signs of anxiety over a long period of time, talk to their teacher and school counselor, and even a mental health professional if need be. “If a child is missing school because of anxiety, that’s a good time to think about seeking professional help,” says Dr. Walker.
For more information about anxiety, visit the Anxiety Disorders Association of Manitoba website at www.adam.mb.ca.