A new school year—and a new grade or school to go with it—can be a scary time for kids. Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., Founder and Director of the Children's Center for OCD and Anxiety, and the author of Freeing Your Child from Anxiety, says, “The unknown is scary for kids, adults too, and in the absence of details, the imagination creeps in and fears can take over. Because kids don't know exactly what it will be like, they invent worst case scenarios, which feel real.”
Some of the most common worst case scenarios for kids are: fear that something bad will happen to their parents, fear of school failure, or fear of other students, according to Atilla Ceranoglu, M.D., a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School.
Your child’s fears will also change as he gets older. Chansky says, “Young children who are new to school are often afraid of getting lost, getting in trouble, that the teacher will be mean, and for some kids, just being away from home is a not-yet-mastered challenge. Older elementary-age kids are often afraid that the work will be too hard, or that they won't have friends.”
Whatever a child’s fears, parents can use this four-step process to help pave the way into the school year.
The first step is to find out what your child’s afraid of, and acknowledge that fear without overreacting or making fun of it. “Reassure your child that the feeling may be real, but what she is scared of may not be real,” says Ceranoglu.
Next, explore your child’s fears, and offer some reasonable alternatives:
“Help your child separate out her ‘worry thoughts’ from her ‘smart thoughts,’ which are the realistic version of the story,” Chansky says.
- Help him see where he may have a misconception or faulty assumption, and fill in the blanks. Why does he think the teacher will be mean? If she were mean, why would she be teaching kids?
- Role-play what your child is afraid of. You play the teacher, or flip it around and let him be the teacher and you be your child.
- Read a book to your child about going to school, and discuss what the character does.
- Share stories of your own school days and the fears you overcame, including a funny anecdote if you have one.
“Feeling understood and having examples to refer to often will help your child overcome the fear,” Ceranoglu says.
Help your child to respond to his fear in a more appropriate way. Ceranoglu recommends having your child use the same imagination that created the fear to fight it off. If he’s imagining a mean teacher, help him imagine one that’s kind and helpful instead. “Gaining such mastery will eventually help your child liberate from most fears,” he says.
Chansky adds, “Make it real: If possible, visit the school to help your child get oriented.”
If your child is returning to a familiar school, try these activities to ease the transition:
- Set up playdates or movie dates with school friends before they all head back to class.
- Have a picnic that allows the kids in your child’s class to reunite.
- Decorate school bags or purchase school supplies together.
To prevent your child from having the fear going forward, Chansky advises seeing it as a temporary situation. “Remember, what’s new and confusing doesn’t stay that way,” she says.
Try these techniques to help the progression:
- Think of other transitions your child has been through and ask him how long it took before he got used to it.
- Ask your child to estimate how long he thinks it will take to get used to school. Will it be a few days, or a few weeks?
- Create a list of strategies that helped him get used to other situations and see if any apply.
- Have him think about his other friends and imagine what worries they may have.
“Finally, on your way to school, review what activities you have planned after school, and upon arrival make sure the drop-off is not lengthy or dramatic, but rather a brief wish for a nice day,” Ceranoglu says.
“And last but not least,” adds Chansky, “normalize for your child that it is okay and normal to have some fears.”