Behavioral and Mental Health
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As summer winds down and stores put up their back-to-school displays, kids can dread returning to the classroom. For many students, this season is full of anxiety that can go unnoticed.
Jared Mueller, a licensed independent social worker, shares strategies for recognizing anxiety in your child and preparing them for a successful school year.
How to identify anxiety
“Anxiety is fear,” Jared says. “So while you may have been to school before, this is a new year with new teachers, different classmates, and a new schedule.” Until kids begin their school year, they can grow anxious thinking about all the what-ifs.
If you notice a change in your child’s behavior, check in with them. “If you see them sleeping longer than they used to, changing their eating habits, or if you see them either over- or under reacting emotionally,” these can all be signs of back-to-school anxiety.
Easing the transition
“Kids go from the flexibility and freedom of summer to the structure of school—there’s natural anxiety to that,” Jared says. He recommends the following ways parents can help their kids gradually adopt their school schedule, without denying them the end of summer fun:
- Make bedtime earlier a couple of nights a week.
- Practice their school morning routine and reward them with quality time, like going out to breakfast, if they “make it to school” on time.
- Set up a time to tour their school if they’re nervous about getting lost.
And help them understand the “why” behind your activities. Let them know you want them to have a successful, happy school year.
Another helpful tool for managing the mental energy that anxiety consumes is redirection:
- Puzzles and problem-solving games are both great ways to help kids redirect.
- Fun distractions like playing outside, going for a walk, yoga, or pattern repetitive behaviors like tapping exercises are also effective.
Many kids don’t have the language skills to express that they’re feeling anxiety. Parents can help their kids with this by first normalizing the emotions they’re feeling and making their kids familiar with the language used to discuss their emotions.
Discussing big feelings
Everything takes time, including a child’s adjustment to school. “Your kid is going to be a better student, a better kid, three weeks into school than they are on the first day,” Jared says.
But many students, especially younger ones, may not know how to express their anxiety or talk about how they feel it during the day.
Most parents are familiar with a common after-school conversation that goes like this:
“How was school today?”
Parents can be more intentional with what they ask to help gauge their child’s anxiety:
- Avoid asking “yes-no” questions.
- Avoid asking questions that can be answered in one word.
- Try questions that encourage your child to reflect on their day, such as “What did you do differently today?”
It also matters how and when parents ask questions. When kids get home from school, they’re often dysregulated. This means they’ll struggle with controlling their emotional responses. Talk while you’re eating dinner together, doing the dishes, or on a family walk.
What if the anxiety lingers?
If your child’s anxiety doesn’t improve the longer they’re in school, consider speaking with their teachers and school counselors to see what they recommend. If interventions at school and home don’t ease their anxiety, speak with a therapist.
Similar to anxiety, normalize the role of therapy. Make sure your child knows that it’s not about fixing them but about fixing the function they’re struggling with. Progress won’t be immediate, and anxiety can be persistent. But with thoughtful communication and honoring your child’s anxious feelings, they can have a great start to their school year.
Consider these strategies as summer winds down to better help your children combat any back-to-school anxiety they may experience.
If your child struggles with anxiety, they may benefit from therapy.Find care
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