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Challenge: Back to School

Helping Your Anxious Child Start Back to School

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For a lot of kids, back to school is a time of excitement. For others, it's moaning and groaning and dragging feet about missing summer vacation. But for a small percentage, back to school brings up a knot in the stomach, headaches from tension, and restless nights from worry.

If you have a child like this, chances are they are anxious about the start of a new school year. I can tell you first hand that I am familiar with the physical symptoms and the insomnia that come with worry about this time. Every September, I was that anxious kid.

My worries were mostly over friendships. I worried about fitting in, looking right, liking the teacher, if the teacher would like me, if my weakness in math would do me in.


My anxiety robbed me of the joy and anticipation of seeing my classmates again. What would I have wished for as a kid struggling through these feelings on my own? Understanding and sympathetic ears for one, followed by someone teaching me coping skills for how to return to the classroom after three months away.

There are some important steps that you as a parent or caregiver, can do that will help your child's entry back into school become one of more excitement and less apprehension.

Begin with listening. If you note signs of agitation in your child, ask how they are feeling about going back to school. When they give you their answers, listen, without judgment and lectures. If you feel that your child's worries are more than you are equipped to help with, call your physician and make an appointment. From there, you can ask for a recommended child therapist specializing in anxiety and worry. It's worth investigating.

If your child doesn't spill too much with what they're feeling, there is a site that has quality interactive books and games that encourage dialogue with your child: Childswork Childsplay. My family has found many useful workbooks and guidebooks here and have had success in increasing communication with our child through them. Two titles I recommend are Wemberly Worried and Worry Bear, both are great conversation starters.

Role play how the first day of school will be like. This is a huge comforting activity. Take the roles, and then switch. You be the child, then you be the friend. Have your child act out parts of returning to school, what they'll say, who they'll talk to, how they will approach people. Then you play the classmate back. Interact and practice impromptu scenarios. Practicing social situations helps to calm nerves.

Tuck a note of reassurance and comfort into their lunch. A quick hello from home along with a “You got this!" promises to put a smile on their face.

If you're able to, practice walking through the school before the actual first day back. We do that with our children. We are able to go to their classes, practice their schedule, look at the lunch room. Familiarity is calming.

Teach them to be friendly to everyone. To be open minded to different kinds of people is a life long skill. If someone is different from them, teach them to get to know more about people who may not look the same as they do.

Make friends fast is great advice. There will be a lot of children there who are anxious, too, so help your child practice introducing himself first. Give your child three topics of conversation when meeting someone for the first time. I always suggest that they ask others about the best thing they did all summer. Also, tell them that by saying hello first, they will bring relief to other kids who are anxious like they are.

Share a story of your childhood of a time when you did something that was hard to do, but was worth the nervousness. Explain how you once reached out and got to know somebody you never would have known if it weren't for making the first move.

Make the first day back as stress free as possible by having everything ready the night before. Clothes out, lunches set up, backpack filled, school supplies labeled. Get to bed early and plan an early rise to prevent the anxiety that comes with rushing out the door. Arrive to school earlier than usual so your child can be one of the first ones in the classroom. This decreases the anxiety that can come from having to walk into a large group.

It never hurts to clue the teacher in on your child's personality. Let the teacher know of your child's apprehension and worries. Ask them to be on watch and let you know of any signs of them being overwhelmed.

More than anything, let your child know they can talk to you about anything that's bothering them. Provide them with extra encouragement and a kiss and a hug that first morning of back to school. Tell them you can't wait to hear about their first day back and that anyone would love to have them as their friend.

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