Summer wind-down: Helping kids unknot their first-day-of-school or back-to-school nerves

Whether a little one is heading off to school for the very first time or an older child is starting a new year, anticipating the Big Event can produce anxiety. Give them tools for coping with their fears. It’s as important as filling their backpack with supplies and even more portable!

A Johns Hopkins Health website in a post titled, “5 Tips to Ease Back-to-School Anxiety,” notes that “The transition back to class as summer ends can be a stressful time for children and parents alike.” One tip they offer for easing a child’s anxiety is: “A week or two before school, start preparing children for the upcoming transition by getting back to school year routines, such as a realistic bedtime and selecting tomorrow’s clothes.”

They also encourage validating the child’s worry “by acknowledging that, like any new activity, starting school can be hard but soon becomes easy and fun.”

Some stress about school is as typical as some stress about work is for adults. However, knowing what’s standard-issue anxiety and what’s excessive--and getting in the way of success--can be challenging. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention‘s “Data and Statistics on Children’s Mental Health,” which cites research reported last year in the The Journal of Pediatrics, 7.1% of children aged 3-17 years (approximately 4.4 million) have diagnosed anxiety. That study also notes that about 3 in 4 kids in the same age group who depression also have anxiety.

Whether dealing with a little bit o’ fear or a whole lotta’ worry, a variety of creative techniques can be helpful in, yes, validating the anxiety but also helping kids cope with it. A meme making social media rounds recently appears to have originated with a postcard created by an Etsy seller in Australia whose PhoenixPlaceShop, affiliated with Phoenix Place, which provides play therapy, expressive arts therapy, and counseling services. The shop offers “things to help you and help you flourish,” and the postcard, which is described as “drawing from current research and current therapeutic practice” is titled “9 Things to Say to Your Anxious Child.”  

Two of the ideas are based in storytelling technique: “Let’s think up some endings for what could happen (anxious ones, goofy ones AND realistic ones).” Another is “What would you like to say to your worry? What might your worry say back? Then what?”

In a Kids Health from Nemours article on anxiety disorders, it describes that “Kids with GAD [generalized anxiety disorder] worry over things that most kids worry about, like homework, text, or making mistakes,” though they may worry more and more often. However, it adds that “Kids with GAD also worry over things parents might not expect would cause worry. For example, they might worry about recess, lunchtime, birthday parties, playtime with friends, or riding the school bus.”

The article notes that another type of anxiety disorder--separation anxiety disorder--can develop in kids who do not outgrow the fear of being apart from a parent. Among the symptoms, “They may cling to a parent, cry, or refuse to go to school, sleepovers, playdates, or other activities without their parent.”

Sometimes, as the Phoenix Place tips suggest, saying something as simple as “tell me about it,” can help. Listen closely to their answer and help guide them to alternative possibilities in the “story” they are picturing and how they think it will turn out.

A few years back, Renee Jain, in an article for the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform, titled “9 Things Every Parent with an Anxious Child Should Try,” speaks from experience as a self-described one-time anxious child. Amid many ideas, she suggests we “Help them go from what if to what is” describing it as “time travel” of sorts. She writes, “A typical time traveler asks what-if questions: ‘What if I can’t open my locker and I miss class?’ ‘What if Suzy doesn’t talk to me today?’ She also links to research showing that “coming back to the present can alleviate this tendency,” and practicing mindfulness can help, including simply helping a child focus on their breathing for a few minutes.

Another of Jain’s strategies is to “teach your child to be a thought detective,” which involves a 3-step process. Imagine thoughts floating overhead as in a comic, and “now, catch one of the worried thoughts like ‘No one at school likes me.’” Then “collect evidence to support or negate this thought.” She observes that “feelings are not facts,” and if a child can think of a friend or happy collaborative work or play experience, that will become “evidence” to contradicts the negative thought. The third step in being a thought detective is to “challenge your thoughts,” teaching kids to have a debate within themselves.

Getting kids to talk about their anxious thoughts is the first step in helping them learn to reframe and cope with those thoughts—important tools to “bookmark” and pull out whenever and wherever needed!