It’s that time of year again – time to play a rousing game of who-hid-the-lunch-boxes and that perennial favorite, the school-supply-scavenger hunt. For most families it’s also time for some back-to-school anxiety. Whether your child experiences normal jitters or spends the next six weeks battling a stomach ache, there are ways parents can help.
The first thing a loving parent can do is to confront their own anxiety. If you are worried about your child’s teacher, having flashbacks of your own childhood or aggravated at the back-to-school process, discuss those things with a spouse, trusted friend or counselor but do so out of ear-shot of the next generation. A calm, rational parent is your child’s best defense against unreasonable fears.
A second way you can help is to give your children the resources they need to combat anxiety. That means nutritious food, sufficient and regular sleep, time to play and a routine which is free of additional stressors like an overly busy schedule or parental squabbling. Observe the circumstances which tend to overwhelm your child, and make a special effort this time of year to reduce or eliminate those things.
If you notice that your child is nervous, help them by naming it: “I think you might be a little worried about going back to school. Is anything particular bothering you?” When your child has fears about a specific situation, give them safe opportunities to confront that fear, such as meeting a new teacher before class starts or talking through the procedure for riding the school bus. Normalize your child’s anxiety: “I used to feel anxious about starting school, too, but I always ended up making new friends and having a lot of fun.” Your nonjudgmental acceptance of your child’s concerns can transform a big monster into a small, yapping dog.
Many children experience their worst anxiety in the morning before school. Make a special effort to create a calm and happy atmosphere at home. Play music. Take care of onerous chores at night, like completing homework and packing up. Make sure your morning routine allows enough time to get everything done without undue aggravation. A comforting ritual like a prayer, a hug or a family cheer is a great way for your child to leave the house. If you are driving them to school, tell stories or play audio books in the car on the way.
If your child experiences more than usual anxiety at the beginning of the school year, it can be helpful to talk with his or her teacher and use more targeted techniques at home. Create a vocabulary for anxiety, like “bees in your belly” or “the worry monster.” Teach your child that our bodies react physically to danger, but we can decide whether there is any real danger. Most of the time there isn’t, and then we can take steps to relax our bodies, like deep breathing, squeezing a stress ball or holding God’s hand. Model and practice these skills. If the teacher allows it, your child might want to bring a squishy toy or stuffed animal to school.
Perhaps after reading this article you are feeling a little anxious, yourself! It’s normal to feel uneasy about confronting the unknown, but God tells us to cast those cares into His lap and rely on His help, just as your child relies on your help. The beginning of the school year can be an exciting time of growth when you face it as a loving family with faith and trust in a Heavenly Father who cares for each one of us.
Read more about these and other ways to help your child in The Anxiety Cure by Archibald Hart or The Anxiety Cure for Kids by Elizabeth Spencer and Caroline and Robert Dupont.