Back to School Blues
by, Synergy eTherapy Staff Writer
Its that time of year.
Camps are winding down, sales are happening where ever you turn, and stay-at-home-parents across America are secretly (or not so secretly) rejoicing! School is just around the corner, but with all the hustle and bustle lies a darker issue known as the “back-to-school blues.” While parents can also feel the effects of this type of seasonal depression and anxiety, let’s take a moment and focus on what children may be feeling during this transitional time.
According to Anxiety BC, “Anxious feelings are normal and expected during times of transition or change. This is especially true for children and teens going back to school, or for first-timers starting kindergarten.” And while children are very capable of adapting to new and different situations, it is important that we help them, especially little ones, be able to express their worries and fears so that we can best help them cope.
Some of the most common worries include:
- Who will be my new teacher?
- What if my new teacher is mean?
- Will any of my friends be in my class?
- Will I fit in?
- Are my clothes OK?
- Will I look stupid?
- Who will I sit with at lunch?
- What if I miss the bus?
- What if I can’t understand the new schoolwork?
- What if something bad happens to mom or dad while I am at school?
So, how do we as parents and/or caretakers help them to manage this stress and ensure we’re starting the school year on a positive note?
It starts with you!
According to The Child Mind Institute, “For parents, the start of the year can be anxiety inducing, too. The pressure’s on you to reinstate routines after the summer break and arrange for new activities and schedules, not to mention facing the resumption of homework.” Make sure you are not subconsciously passing your anxiety and stress onto your children!
Empathize and talk openly.
Asking your children about their fears or worries about going back to school will help them share their burden. Inquire as to what they liked about their previous school or grade and see how those positives can be incorporated into their new experience. Change can be difficult, but also exciting. Let your children know that you are aware of what they’re going through and that you will be there to help them in the process. Nerves are normal, but highlight that not everything that is different is necessarily bad.
Another great tip is rather then dismissing their fears by assuring them with “Don’t worry!” or “Everything will be fine!” Instead, encourage your child to think of ways to solve his or her problem. For example, “If (the worst) happens, what could you do?” or “Let’s think of some ways you could handle that situation.” This gives you the opportunity to coach your child on how to cope with (and interpret) both real and imagined scary situations. You will also be giving your child the tools he or she needs to cope with an unexpected situation that might arise.
According to the APA, It is important to encourage your children to face their fears instead of falling in to the trap of encouraging avoidance. It is important that you do not let them stay home from school as a method of dealing with their anxiety. This will only help to reassure these fears in the long run.
Occasionally, severe anxiety can manifest itself in physical ways. While you don’t want to overlook what could be an actual medical problem (talk to your pediatrician to be sure), recurrent headaches or stomach aches causing them to be too ill to go to school in the morning might just be their anxiety response acting up. Once a medical condition has been ruled out, again, the most important thing a parent can do is to continue sending the child to school as normal. This may be difficult, but if we allow children to avoid situations that make them anxious, we can inadvertently reinforce that those situations are indeed dangerous or scary.
More seriously, a child that continues to complain about physical symptoms, it’s also important to investigate what might be causing anxiety. It could be sign of an actual anxiety disorder or another problem at school and not just the “blues.”
Do some test runs or come up with a game plan together, starting maybe a couple weeks before the first day of school. Any opportunity for exposure, for repetition…for mastery, is going to help them cope more effectively. Below is an example of what a plan could look like.
A week before school starts:
- Start your child on a school-day routine – waking up, eating a healthy and nutritious breakfast, and going to bed at regular times. Explain that everyone in the family needs to adjust to the new schedule so he or she doesn’t feel alone with these changes.
- For older children who have troubles getting up and out of bed, give them a “big person” alarm clock, and let them practice using it.
- Ask your child to help plan school lunches for the first week.
- Create a list of school supplies together and plan a fun shopping trip.
- Teach and practice coping skills (like deep breathing and talking back to their worry) to use when feeling nervous.
A couple days before school:
- Go to school several times – walking, driving, or taking the bus. For young children taking the school bus, describe and draw out the bus route, including where the bus goes and how long it takes to get to school. Talk about bus safety.
- For new students, take a tour of the school. Show your child the classrooms, the cafeteria, and the bathrooms. If possible, meet your child’s teacher with your child present.
- Ask your child to help choose the outfits for the first week of school. Let your child wear his or her favorite outfit on the first day.
- Together with your child, pack up the schoolbag the night before, including one of their favorite foods/snacks.
- For younger children who are nervous about separating, suggest taking a special object to school that reminds him of home. A reassuring note in a child’s lunch can also help ease separation anxiety.
The first day of school:
- Have your child go to school with a friend for the first couple of days.
- Tell the teacher that your child is having some separation anxiety – most teachers are experts in this area and have years of experience!
- Openly discuss how the day went and focus on the positives!
If you need support, don’t hesitate to reach out to your pediatrician or local counselor for help. eTherapy is also a great way to have low-stress family sessions without all the hassles of going to a clinic in the summertime!
Take away message.
Change in routine is HARD for kids and parents! The more time we spend with planning and preparation the better. Have you ever heard, “Prior planning prevents poor performance!” it couldn’t be more true at this time of year for most families.