Can toddlers and teens be anxious about returning to school?

Absolutely!

Most people prefer the familiar and shy away from the unfamiliar, so facing a new school or classroom space, new teacher, new classmates and higher level of work can be overwhelming for children of any age, including those going off to college.

Firstly be aware that unusual aggressive behavior or unusual isolation could be a red flag that they are having big feelings inside that they do not know how to name, identify or process.

Having loving conversations to listen to their concerns and offer reassurance is always the best place to start. Bombarding them with suggestions can sometimes add to the anxiety so its best to coach them by having them process whatever they are feeling.

A question to help them process feelings, after the feeling has been identified is: “ So what do you think would help you feel less scared, worried, anxious?” “ Is there anything I can do to help you feel less anxious? Think about it and let me know”.

This approach meets the child’s need to be heard and validated.

Older children could be lacking confidence, especially if they did not perform as well as they had hoped in the previous years academic measurements. Offering them private tutoring support is always an option. Finding retired teachers and mentors to assist in this in only a few phone calls away.

Avoid responding to children’s and to people’s feelings with comments such as “ Come on, get over it! Don’t take that on! Grow up! Don’t be so silly!” etc.

Many of us do this and we think it is being encouraging but the unspoken message here is that we think they “should” not feel the way they do.

Who are we to dictate how people “should” feel?

Many people eventually do not feel safe to express their feelings when they repeatedly experience having their feelings shut down. This approach leads to feelings being suppressed and suppressed emotions and feelings eventually lead to deep shame, fear, anger and all sorts of misbehavior and antisocial behavior.

Many people’s brain functioning is also deeply affected by suppressed feelings.

The ability to process language, calculate, comprehend, remember and think clearly can be affected by suppressed emotions.

If we want academic excellence from children providing a stable emotional atmosphere is ideal and when that is not possible they must at least have avenues to vent or process their feelings. Sports, dance and exercise are superb ways for people to release emotional energy.

Another caution re not acknowledging other’s feelings is that when we do not care to hear how others are feeling, they will seek out people who will listen and care. So the question becomes ‘Would you like to be your child’s confidant or are you happy for them to turn to peers who may offer them dangerous ways to cope with those feelings, namely alcohol and drugs or promiscuity?’

On a practical level how can we prepare and support young children?

  •  Facilitate them meeting or bonding with the teacher and visiting the venue or classroom before the first day where possible.
  • Facilitate them bonding with at least one classmate by arranging an outing with that classmate and parent before school opens or during the first few days.
  • Allow child to carry a small object of comfort with them to school. If their favorite small stuffed toy is not enough then maybe a family photo will do or a small item belonging to mum or dad.
  • Role playing at home with dolls or stuffed toys is always helpful, having child verbalize how they would prepare or encourage another child (teddy) who is scared.
  • Sharing personal stories or those of friends and relatives who struggled and devised their own coping strategies is often well received. People don’t particularly like advice but they are open to hearing about other’s challenges and success stories.
  • Visualizing and rehearsing the good bye at the school door or gate can be reassuring as well as assuring that you will be back at the pick up spot early.
  • Giving the teacher a heads up about the child’s emotional state can help and asking the teacher to assign your child a task as she arrives is a good distraction tactic, this removes the focus off the parent and onto the task to be done.
  • When preparing to leave home on a morning it’s very helpful to make time for light giggles, this discharges anxiety in people. A fun chase game, or tight hugging routine can be set up.

Dr Laura Markham of Aha! Parenting highly promotes helping our children transition through the various phases of the day with special connection routines 3 times per day.

This offers our children greater emotional stability and a chance to recalibrate feelings. She says they benefit from this upon going to bed at night, waking up and upon returning home from school.

It is simply a time to give them undivided attention, ask how they are feeling and validate their feelings.

How do we validate feelings? Similar to above, simply asking in a calm respectful way:

“How are you feeling?” “ I’m here if you want to chat about it or I can just listen.”

or

“Hmm, I notice you seem _____________(irritable, angry, annoyed, frustrated, exhausted, tired, weary, looking down, sad, lethargic), would you like to share with me about that?”  “Let me know if I can do anything to help, even just listen”.

8) Being organized with school and work clothes, lunches, books and briefcases etc from the night before so as to reduce morning scrambles is always beneficial to both parent and child and especially getting enough rest to face earlier rises. Leaving home extra early can provide a calm departure, journey and drop off time, all of which can reduce anxiety and make facing the unfamiliar scenes easier.

Feel free to share your strategies for reducing back to school anxiety in your kids.

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