Back to School Do’s and Don’ts for Parents
Are you counting down the days until your child goes back to school? Are you already imagining having your days back, whether that includes uninterrupted work, running errands, or just being an adult? You might be shocked to know that your child is counting down the days as well, just not the way you are
Anxiety comes in many forms. Some children may experience mild symptoms that may include a stomach ache, spending an inordinate amount of time picking the right outfit or school supplies, asking tons of questions, or staying more quiet than usual. Other children may feel more uncomfortable symptoms of anxiety that might include having trouble sleeping, being clingy, decreased appetite, restlessness, or irritability. Some may even feel severe symptoms that might involve tears, tantrums, nightmares, or school refusal.
Common worries about the upcoming year include:
- Being away from home
- Being away from parental figures
- Teacher issues
- Friendship issues/Social issues
- Getting lost and being late
- Navigating a new school, or new area of the school
- Locker troubles
- Amount and difficulty of homework
- Getting into trouble
- Detention… even if that doesn’t exist at their school
We’ve made a Do and Don’t list to kick off the year as stress-free as possible.
- Listen empathetically – This means not over-promising or using scenarios you aren’t sure of to try to reassure them. Acknowledge their feelings by letting them know that transitions are hard for everyone, including yourself. Remind them that day to day they may not notice the changes of a new grade, but they were able to transition to all other grade levels. “Remember when you thought there was no way you could leave 3rd grade and make it to 4th grade? What made that possible? How were you able to do that? You are about to start
5th! That is awesome, you got this!”
- Get them talking – Play around with the concerns/questions/worries they have by playing a game, this is a great low-risk way to delve into hard to discuss topics. Play the “What if” game or the “I wonder” game. Usually, children know more than they remember or let on. By playing these games, you will get them talking about different social scenarios, who to reach out to for help, or how they will be able to handle it themselves. For example, “I wonder if any other kids feel nervous about finding their way to their new class or a new part of the school.” After a brief discussion, you can follow that up by asking “What if you did need help? Who could you ask?” You can even add silly questions to break the tension, such as, “What if a dinosaur was your classmate? I wonder if anyone has had that worry before.” “Where would that dinosaur sit?”
- Bring back predictability – Summer is all about no schedules, lazy days, and feeling relaxed. Unfortunately, those types of days lead to uncertainty and a lack of predictability. School is very
routine basedand predictable for children, which can make them feel safe as the routines and procedures are back in place. Try getting the schedule regulated a few weeks or a few nights before school starts. This can include, earlier bedtimes, scheduled screen time, picking out clothes the night before, and having a visual schedule for the day.
- Get reacquainted with school – Driving by, walking in, and getting reacquainted with the building can help kids ease into the idea of going back to school. Run throughs are especially helpful for kids transitioning to a new school. Children who are transitioning from elementary to middle or middle to high school typically have an orientation, but it usually occurs at the end of the previous year and that they tend to forget. Once at school, if transitioning to a new building, let them map out their classes, know where their locker is located, and walk through as if it’s an actual school day.
- Give them coping strategies – Having a collection of coping strategies can help your child feel at ease, knowing they have skills to use when a situation arises.
- Taking 3 deep breaths – It sounds so simple, but deep breathing can actually make a big difference in how anxious or stressed we feel. Practice a few times a day with your child, slowly breathing in through your nose, and out through your mouth, feeling your belly rise and fall with each breath. Have your child lay down on their backs with a stuffed animal on their stomach. This can help them visualize the breath going in and out, while the animal rises and falls.
- Grounding techniques – Focus on each of the five senses. Notice something that you can see, something you can hear, then something you can touch, smell, and possibly taste. Another great grounding technique is to have your child focus on the alphabet. Then, in their head name something for each letter. You can also do this with a category, like naming a
sport relatedword for every letter of the alphabet or things you find at school.
- Keeping hands busy – Use a stone, marble, stretchy bracelet, or any other small item to keep your hands busy and quiet. An easy way to let your child know if a fidget works for them is to have them understand it’s not a toy. If they are concentrating on playing with the fidget, the fidget is not working for them. They will be able to focus and concentrate on classwork and their teacher if the fidget is the right fit.
- Reframing negative self-talk – This goes back to finding evidence
likewe talked about in #2. Does your child have evidence to support the negative thought? If not, create a kinder, more balanced, helpful thought based on facts.
- Ask neutral, open-ended questions – Questions that ask about a specific topic, leading to a specific response can illicit shame or anxiety in a child. They are wanting to please, and if they don’t have a solid answer it can lead to further issues in communication. Asking open-ended neutral questions will get you much more of an
while allowing it to feel low-risk for your child. So instead of asking, “Who did you play with at recess?” Ask “What were the three best, silliest or funniest parts of your day?” This type of question can lead to a rich dialogue that you would not have gotten otherwise. answer,
- Problem solve for them – Solving a problem for your child gives them the feeling that they are not capable of handling it or figuring out a plan on their own. This leads to greater anxiety in the future as their worries and problems only become larger. This only increases the feelings of anxiety as they don’t feel equipped to manage the problem themselves. Let them handle the small stuff now, and it will create the independence and resiliency you were hoping to cultivate.
- Dismiss their feelings – When an adult tells a child, “don’t be nervous” or belittles their fears by implying that these aren’t things to be nervous about, it only creates more anxiety. Hearing what they have to say can often ease the burden of worries for children. Let your child lead the conversation and allow them to have whatever feelings they have.
- Allow setbacks to create more anxiety – It can be hard to see your child struggling with anxiety again after they ended the year on a great note and were able to have a fantastic summer full of positive experiences. However, if you make a big deal about this “setback” after they were doing so well, you will cause them to feel anxious about feeling anxious. Take each day as it comes and remember, it’s okay to have a bad day every once in awhile, everyone does. Within the ups and downs of their day or week are where kids learn to shine. Remember, they are problem solvers. If you can learn to let them handle it when the setbacks are smaller, then your child will grow more confident and learn to accept them without it becoming a huge setback. Utilize this thinking on a regular basis and you will see your child become more resilient over time.
- Set unrealistic expectations – Often times parents want to set their child up for success by being overly positive and optimistic. While positivity is good, it can also create an environment where the child is afraid to fail. You may need to help your child accept that sometimes it takes time to get used to new circumstances. One time this is particularly true is when a child worries that they won’t have friends in their class. Instead of assuring them that they have lots of friends, try reminding them of a time they did make a new friend. Having this conversation gives your child clear evidence that they previously succeeded in this tough situation. They will then begin to understand that they can be their own problem solver, even when things don’t go the way they’d like, having the proof they need to succeed.
Jamie is taking new child and adolescent clients for individual and group therapy. Her LEGO® Club, is enrolling now. LEGO® Club is for children ages 5-12 struggling with social skills, following directions, problem-solving, or children that need practice interacting with peers. She will also be recruiting members for her Therapeutic Book Club and Anxious Youth Group soon!