Evidence-Based Strategies that Parents Can Use to Reduce Back-To-School Anxiety
Feeling anxious about the first day of school is common. It is a time of change and there can be many unknowns. For some children, the intensity of anxiety can become overwhelming and impact their ability to function. They may experience many, many thoughts and questions floating in their minds about their new class, teacher, friends, and school. These thoughts can become difficult to control as they multiply and repeat themselves. Examples of negative thoughts may be:
· “What if the teacher doesn’t like me?”
· “What if I do or say something stupid?
· “This is going to be awful”
· “Something horrible could happen.”
· “I may get sick and throw up in front of everyone”
· “I’m going to be by myself at lunch with no one to talk to me.”
· “What if my friends don’t like me anymore?”
· “What if they make fun of my clothes?”
These negative thoughts can lead to feelings of anxiety and various body sensations (e.g. headache, stomachache, sweating, a racing heart, butterflies in the stomach). Your child may have a difficult time sleeping, eating, and may protest going to school on the first day.
Below is a list of some evidence-based strategies to start working on NOW to help your child decrease anxiety so they can get through that first school day and so that you can sleep a little easier yourself.
Validate Your Child’s Feelings
There are better alternatives to saying “Don’t worry” to your child. “Don’t worry” is such a common phrase. However, it does not validate your child’s feelings. It is likely very hard for them to just stop worrying. In order to validate them, you can say “I know your feeling really scared (afraid, worried, mad, etc.) right now” or “It’s really hard thinking about going back to school.”
Model a Positive Coping Thought
Positive coping thoughts assist a child to think in a more helpful way that provides them with strength and courage. You can say, “Even though this is difficult, you can get through this,” “You’ve faced scary situations in the past and you can do it again,” and “You are brave!” Come up with a list of positive coping thoughts together with your child and have them practice saying them in front of the mirror.
Help Your Child Figure Out What They Are Thinking
All children are unique. Some know right away what is bothering them. They can specifically tell you that they are anxious about being asked to answer a question by the teacher in class. Others have a more difficult time understanding why they are anxious and may just say school in general is scary or they don't like school. In this scenario, it is helpful to sit down with your child and have a conversation to try to pinpoint specifically what is making them anxious. You can have them draw or write a story of what they think will happen the first day of school. Have them explain what they are thinking and feeling as they go through the day in their story.
Challenge Negative Thoughts
Even though negative thoughts can feel like they are true and bound to happen, there usually is evidence to “fight back” against and challenge these thoughts to prove that they are not likely to happen.
· Be a detective with your child. Ask your child, “What evidence supports that this will not happen? For example, if your child fears that their teacher won’t like them, instead, have them challenge that thought (e.g. “My teacher liked me last year,” “I work hard at school and listen,” “The teacher does not even know me yet”).
· Is it likely to happen or not? Say to your child, “What do you think are the chances that this will happen?” For example, your child may be worried that they will get sick and throw up at school. If this never happens or infrequently happens, you can discuss that the chances are low. Help your child remember that this is not something that happens often and likely will not occur.
· Give advice to a friend. Sometimes it is easier to think of challenges to negative thoughts if you consider what you would say to a friend who is going through the same problem. Say to your child, “What would you say to your friend if he/she was thinking this way?” Your child may surprise you in how quickly they can come up with a positive coping thought in this way.
Make a Game Plan
Most negative thoughts are not based in fact, however you should have a plan in the event that something does happen. Come up with a plan with your child for what to do in these situations. For example, if your child fears that she will end up sitting alone at lunch, role play to have them practice asking, “Can I sit with you?” You can also make a list of the individuals they can ask for help if they do not feel well or are feeling anxious.
Contact Your School
If your child is experiencing more than the “normal first day jitters,” contact the school beforehand to let them know. School staff can look out for your child and help. Your child may benefit from meeting with their guidance counselor or the school psychologist to discuss worries and come up with and practice other coping strategies.