Summer is winding down and your child is equipped with new school supplies, new clothes, and new shoes; that can only mean it’s time to head back to school. Parents may be excited to rush the kids off to the classroom, but for many children with anxiety, the start of a new school year is terrifying and worrisome.
Children are often afraid of the first day of school and have questions about their new teacher, whether or not they’ll have friends, and fears of getting lost or not being able to find their way. This type of fear and worry is actually quite healthy and a normal reaction to stressful situations. But for some children, this worry becomes excessive, does not go away, and often gets worse. When anxiety causes impairment and interferes with your child’s ability to function, this is a cause for concern.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, and 1 out of 8 children suffer from anxiety. Though it is so common, anxiety disorders are highly treatable.
So, what is anxiety? Anxiety is the body’s natural reaction to stressful, dangerous, or unfamiliar situations. Normal, healthy anxiety allows our body to prepare for new situations or events and helps our body to stay alert and aware. But for children and adults with an anxiety disorder, anxiety feels far from normal.
Unless a person mentions that they feel anxious or nervous, anxiety can be hard to detect. Young children usually aren’t able to pick up on their anxious feelings and say “I’m feeling anxious.” Quite often, anxiety displays itself as physical symptoms like stomachaches, nausea, rapid heartbeat, and headaches.
Research suggests that anxiety is caused by a variety of factors; including brain chemistry, genetics, and environmental triggers. Some children have a genetic predisposition to anxiety, meaning their parents likely have it as well. Sometimes anxiety disorders are developed following a traumatic situation; such as abuse, witnessing domestic violence, or the death of a loved one. Other times, there seems to be no apparent reason or cause for anxiety disorders; it just happens. Most commonly, anxiety is triggered by stress. Preparing to go back to school following a long, relaxing summer is indeed stressful.
Here are 4 tips to calm back-to-school anxiety and make the transition easier for your child.
1. Do not dismiss the anxiety. A normal response to a child’s excessive worry and fear is to say “There’s nothing to be afraid of!” This is especially true when, as adults, we know that the worry is REALLY nothing to worry about. However, in a child’s mind, anxiety creates genuine fear. During periods of anxiety, a child is unable to think rationally or logically. Instead of trying to reason with your child, encourage your child to take long, deep breaths. Doing so triggers reactions in the nervous system, allowing the body to calm down.
2. Acknowledge your child’s feelings and fears. Empathize with your child. They need to know that you understand how they feel. Normalize your child’s anxious feelings, letting them know that it is okay to worry. Remind your child of situations where they have worried in the past and everything worked out fine. Sometimes, children just need reassurance that everything will be okay.
3. Express positive and realistic expectations. As much as you want to tell your child “You’ll have tons of friends!” or “You’re going to love school!” that actually may not be the case. Instead, remind your child that you believe in him/her and trust that they can handle this new experience. Boosting your child’s confidence goes a long way in calming their anxiety.
4. Prepare for the first day. Drive by the school and check out the building. Attend “Meet the Teacher” night which usually happens before school starts. This gives your child an opportunity to meet their new teacher, see the classroom, and to make sure they know their way around. Even take a small tour to show or remind them where the cafeteria and bathrooms are located and where they can find the counselor if they need help. This simple step can do wonders for relieving your child’s anxiety, visually preparing them for what to expect.
If you continue to notice that your child is struggling with anxiety, you don’t have to suffer alone. Restoring Serenity Counseling Center, PLLC can help you and your child recognize and combat anxiety disorders.