By Tanni Haas
A lot of kids feel anxious at back-to-school time, after a long summer full of fun. They’re often the most anxious when they’re about to go to a new school, are going through a transition year from elementary to middle school or middle to high school, or when a best friend has moved away over the summer break. What do you do to make your kids less anxious and more excited about the upcoming school year? Experts agree on the following:
Talk To Your Kids About Their Anxieties
If you suspect that your kids are experiencing back-to-school anxiety, talk to them about it. Instead of sitting them down for a formal affair, talk about their anxieties as a natural part of your end-of-summer conversations. As Caroline Miller of the Child Mind Institute puts it: “Kids often say more when there’s less pressure to ‘have a talk.’” Ask open-ended questions that you know will get them to speak, listen carefully to how they respond, and acknowledge their anxieties no matter how exaggerated they may seem. “When children know they can share their observations or challenges, and their parents will listen,” says Dr. Laurie Hollman, a child psychotherapist, “they go to school with the parents’ calm, steady voice in the back of their minds.”
Stay Positive and Project Confidence In Them
When you talk to your kids, stay positive and let them know that you’ve confidence in them. As Dr. Kurt Smith, a counseling psychologist, puts it: “Your enthusiasm will be noticed and remembered.” Focus your conversation on how well everything turned out in previous years, and assure them you’re confident about this year, too. It can be helpful to recount your own back-to-school experiences with anxiety and how you overcame them. “Kids love to hear stories from their parents’ childhood,” says Dr. Joan Munson, a clinical psychologist,” because it helps normalize any difficult feelings they’re experiencing.” You can also help them normalize their feelings, Dr. Munson says, simply be reminding them “that all children have these fears and they’re not alone.”
Practice School-Day Routines
You can help ease your kids’ anxieties by having them practice their school-day routines, like waking up in the morning at a specific time, getting dressed, packing the school bag, eating breakfast, and travelling to school. Dr. Lynn Bufka, a clinical psychologist, says that practicing school-day routines will instill in your kids “a sense of mastery over the situation” and “will help them feel like it’s more under their control.” Indeed, research shows that kids who prepare in advance for the upcoming school year are less anxious and do better academically.
Engage Them In Role Play
It’s helpful to role play the school-related situations that make your kids the most anxious. “The best way to gain mastery over worries,” says Katie Hurley, a licensed social worker, “is to practice taking control over worrisome situations.” This can be anything from riding the school bus to participating in class discussions. “If you discover that your child’s afraid of riding the school bus,” says Munson, “set up an area in the house and do a ‘pretend’ ride to school.” Similarly, “if they’re afraid to ask the teacher questions, do role plays together on how to speak up in class.”
Arrange Play Dates With Classmates
It’s a good idea to arrange play dates with your kids’ friends, especially if you know that those friends are likely to be their classmates during the upcoming school year. “Play dates before school starts,” says Hollman, “can help prepare them to be with their classmates in an unpressured setting.” Munson agrees: “If your child hasn’t seen school friends over the summer, it isn’t too late to invite them over to help your child get re-acquainted with them and excited for school. Visits to the park, pool, or movies with old friends – and new ones, too – can make your child feel more comfortable when they encounter their peers at school.”
Make The First School Day Special
The first day of school should be treated like a special occasion. “Letting them choose what clothes to wear or breakfast to have,” says Dr. John Piacentini, a child psychiatrist, “can provide a sense of control and excitement about school.” But don’t assume that this will magically reduce all your kids’ anxieties. Munson emphasizes that parents ought to “set aside a time in the evening to discuss how their child’s day went and to listen to any concerns.”
Don’t Be Anxious Yourself
Try to control any anxieties that you may experience yourself. Anxiety is contagious, so if you’re anxious, your kids can get anxious, too. As Ms. Hurley puts it, “if you appear overwhelmed and anxious on the first day of school, your child is likely to follow your lead.” Instead, Dr. Julia Burch, a child psychologist, suggests that you “try to model the calm behaviour you’d like to see in your child.” If you stay calm and focus on all the great things your kids are about to experience, they’ll end up getting more excited than anxious about the upcoming school year.
Tanni Haas, Ph.D. is a Professor in the Department of Communication Arts, Sciences, and Disorders at the City University of New York – Brooklyn College.