Children and teens often experience school-related stress and anxiety, and some kids feel emotional discomfort more intensely than others. The first day of school, especially the first day in a new school, can trigger anxiety symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, sleeplessness and panic attacks. You might notice these symptoms in your child weeks prior to the first day of school, and you may also be tipped off to your child's worries through the questions he asks: "Will any of my friends be in my class? What if the teacher is mean? Who will I sit with at lunch? What if I miss the bus?" Some of these worries you may remember from your own school days.
Anxiety can impact your child to the point where they refuse to go to school or they're simply miserable about going. Little ones might cling, cry or throw a tantrum in the car. Older kids might withdraw or become extra irritable. You hate to see your child suffer, so here are some general ways that you can help ease your child's worries:
1) Give your child a solid foundation. Stress packs a wallop when anyone is tired or hungry, and when a child is anxious, she might forget to eat, not feel hungry, not eat nutritious foods or not sleep soundly. Experts at anxiety resource AnxietyBC say you can help by providing healthy meals and snacks, and a regular daily routine including a bedtime that allows for optimal sleep, so that life is more predictable for your child. With a foundation of wellness, your child has an advantage in handling stress.
2) Ask your child to share his or her fears. "Tell your child that it is normal to have concerns," say the AnxietyBC experts. The experts at children's book publisher Scholastic suggest asking "What makes you feel that way?" Create a safe and welcoming outlet for him or her to talk about worries. Before school begins, and within the first few weeks, set up a regular discussion time in a comfortable private space where siblings cannot enter and distract.
3) Know how to respond well. AnxietyBC's experts advise, "Don't assure them with 'Don't worry!' or 'Everything will be fine.' Children often seek reassurance that bad things won't happen in order to reduce their worry. Instead, encourage your child to think of ways to solve his or her problem." Ask your child "If (worry) happens, what could you do?" or "Let's think of some ways that you could handle that situation." You'll then coach your child on how to cope with real and imaginary dangers.
4) Try role-playing. If your child is willing, he can play the part of the "mean" teacher, and you can respond as the student, modeling appropriate responses and mindsets. Don't pressure your child into this exercise, though; added stress will only make anxieties worse.
5) Encourage your child to accentuate the positives. Ask your child questions to re-direct his attention away from worries and toward the good parts of school. "Most kids can think of something good, even if it's just getting a snack or going home at the end of the day," say AnxietyBC's experts.
6) Control your own anxieties. If you're nervous about handing your child over to the teacher's care, your child will pick up on your anxiety. "When saying goodbye in the morning, say it cheerfully -- once," say the AnxietyBC professionals. Don't reward your child's crying or protests by allowing him to stay home. And certainly don't get emotional in front of your child. Instead, say, "I can see that going to school is making you unhappy, but you still have to go. Tell me what's worrying you, so that we can talk about it." When your child reveals his worry, you can deliver a problem-solving skill.
7) Practice ahead of time. Before the first day of school, ask your child to help you plan lunches or pick out outfits for the first week. If possible, bring your child to the school for a walk-through before hallways are crowded with other kids, and explore locations such as the gym, classrooms and the playground.
8) There's an app for that. "MindShift," by Creative Bistro, is a free app available on iTunes, offering teens easy tools to recognize and manage signs of anxiety, plus tips for handling test anxiety, social anxiety, perfectionism, conflict and other challenges common during the typical school day. Think of this app as a portable coach to help your child when he's in the middle of a stressful situation.
9) Praise and reward your child for brave behavior. When your child returns from a day of school, acknowledge your child's bravery and ask about the positive parts of his day so that his thoughts direct to the experiences he liked, rather than stewing about an unliked portion.
10) Help your child connect with friend. The Scholastic experts suggest getting a copy of your child's class roster and setting up playdates so that your child can widen his circle of friends, instead of focusing on the friends he has "lost" because they're not in his class. And make plans with "old friends," assuring your child that he'll see Billy and Tommy at basketball.
If your child's anxiety is a vast departure from your child's usual behavior and lasts well past the beginning of the school year, consider taking him to his pediatrician or a counselor for evaluation and resources. Scholastic's experts say, "Anxiety disorders do affect children and are often overlooked because some children do not tend to act out." When anxiety is untreated, it can lead to depression.
The editors of Parents magazine say, "Whether you consult a social worker, a psychologist or a psychiatrist, choose someone who specializes in working with kids your child's age. And be sure that this expert, your child's teacher and you work together as a team. Finally, remember that kids see their friends attending school; they want to be able to do that too. Some just need extra help to overcome their fears."