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Back to School for the Anxious Child

Back to School for the Anxious Child

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Updated on Jun 6, 2013

All kids feel apprehensive about the first day of school, whether they’re continuing on to the next level of grade school or starting middle school for the first time. Usually, the excitement over seeing old friends outweighs the nervous butterflies, and most children are eager to get back into the routine of classroom, sports, and other activities.

But for anxious kids, anticipating the first day of school can be filled with dread. Rather than looking forward to the new school year, these children often worry about everything from whether they’ll like their teachers to being separated from their family. As parents, however, there are many steps you can take before school begins to lessen anxiety and help your child feel more positive about that big first day.

Dawn Huebner, Ph.D, author of What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety, says that while it might be tempting to avoid talking about school ahead of time when you know that the conversation will trigger anxiety for your child, avoiding the issue is a big mistake. “Your child needs to talk about, hear about, think about school to get used to it, “ she says. “Especially if he is anxious, he needs to be bathed in school talk to ‘wear out the tape’ on the scary parts.”

Here are some other recommendations from Huebner to help your worrisome child make it through back to school season:

Make the Talk Positive Remind your child that everyone feels anxious about the first day of school. Talk about how nervousness and excitement can blend together, creating feelings like a queasy tummy or a pounding heart. “Your child to can tell himself that ‘I’m just excited; everyone feels that way.’ It’s easier to cope with those weird body feelings when you associate them with excitement rather than, or in addition to, fear,” she says. Huebner also recommends teaching your child how to talk to himself when he feels worried. “Kids can say things like, ‘I’m okay,’ or ‘I’ll see my mom right after school,’” says Huebner. This kind of self-talk can help to calm kids down.

Familiarize Your Child with the School Setting If your child is returning to the same school, emphasize the things that will be familiar, such as the playground, cafeteria, same art, music, or PE teachers. If possible, visit a new or an old school over the summer. Attend any open houses or picnics offered by the school. Take younger kids to play on the playground several times, and see if you can arrange a classroom visit ahead of time. Teachers are usually at school several days or weeks in advance preparing for the school year, and most welcome visits, especially when they know you’re being proactive and trying to head off first-day fears. Find another child who lives nearby with whom you can carpool, walk, or take the bus to school. It’s a lot easier to say goodbye to a parent when you’ve got a buddy along.

Go Shopping for Supplies Together Involve your child in picking out clothing, shoes, backpacks, lunchboxes, and other supplies, focusing on the fun she or he will have using them. Go over the school cafeteria schedule and pick the days your child wants to buy lunch. Or head to the grocery store and select snacks, juice boxes, and other treats to give your child something to look forward to at lunch or snack time.

Schedule “Worry Time” No matter how reassuring you are, an anxious child will still be nervous about going back to school. Huebner suggests scheduling a 10-minute “worry time” each day where you encourage your child to talk about her fears and uncertainty. “When worry time is over,” she says, “move on to talking about a different aspect of school, or something else entirely. If your child brings up fears about school, and it’s not worry time, tell her you can talk about it during worry time, and ask her to put it away until then. This helps to contain the anxiety, rather than allowing it to ooze into every available moment.”

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