Combating back-to-school anxiety

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A new school year is about to begin. While this is typically a time of great anticipation and excitement, there’s plenty of nervousness and anxiety to go around as well. Children get the back-to-school jitters for a number of reasons, and the vast majority of them are normal and age-appropriate. With that in mind, here’s an age-by-age breakdown of tips for helping your child cope with the transition.

Preschool/Kindergarten

Separation anxiety is a major back-to-school concern for young children – and their parents. For every kindergartener who is content to wave goodbye at the bus stop, five others can be seen desperately clinging to mom or dad. Although separation anxiety can be exhausting to deal with, it’s common and should be tackled head on.

  • Acknowledge your child’s fear. As a parent, you might say, “I understand that you’re scared and sad to leave mommy. This is a new experience for you.”
  • Remind your child that you will return. Perhaps you could say, “You’re going to have a great day, and I’ll be here at 3:00 to pick you up.”
  • Establish a goodbye routine and stick to it. Say something like, “Ok, let’s do our secret goodbye handshake and then mommy is going to hug you and go to work.”

Elementary School

A child’s anxiety changes as he or she grows. During early elementary school, kids are concerned about who they will sit by, what their teacher will be like, and how they will make friends. Like kindergarteners, elementary-age children need plenty of reassurance, especially if they’re attending a new school.

  • Vocalize and validate your child’s concerns. Like all of us, children want to be heard and understood. Simply telling a child to stop worrying about something doesn’t really help. Instead, encourage your child to talk to you – and then be sure to listen.
  • Establish a routine. Kids thrive on predictability, so establish a getting-ready-for-school schedule at home. Together you may also want to visit your child’s classroom before the first day of school or look at pictures on the school’s website or Facebook page.
  • Help with problem solving. After you’ve listened to your child’s concerns, together you can brainstorm ways to overcome them. If your child is nervous about making friends, for instance, talk about how to meet other people. You may want to organize play dates with other parents or research clubs or teams you child might enjoy.

Middle School/High School

From peer pressure, dating and issues with friends to anxiety about grades and college, teenagers have a lot of tough stuff on their plate. Here’s how you can help.

  • Keep the dialogue open. When you’re a good listener, there’s a greater chance your teen will feel comfortable talking with you. If your instinct is to try to solve your teen’s problem, remember that he or she may, in fact, just need a sounding board.
  • Share your own life experiences. It may be helpful to talk with your teen about your own experience with junior high and high school. Remind him or her that these are normal feelings and that you were also nervous during this time.
  • Offer plenty of encouragement. Kids who feel loved and accepted by their parents are better equipped to deal with teen anxieties than those who feel like they never measure up. While I’m not suggesting that you encourage laziness or poor academics, I am suggesting that every critique should include some positive feedback. If your child is nervous about learning new things, talk about a time when he or she struggled with a subject and then went on to master it. If your child is worried about social issues and peer pressure, reaffirm the unique qualities that make him or her special.

Regardless of your child’s age, it’s a good idea to start this dialogue in the weeks leading up to the first day of school. Start by asking a few questions. Then take the time to really listen.

David Lowenstein, Ph.D. is a psychologist and the clinical director of Lowenstein & Associates, Inc. in Columbus, Ohio. In addition to providing therapeutic services to individuals and families, he offers training and consultation to numerous associations, schools and agencies around the country. Additionally, he is a frequent radio and TV guest and a resource and contributing writer for numerous newspapers and magazines nationwide. Contact Dr. David Lowenstein at 691 South Fifth Street, Columbus, Ohio, 43206, or call 614.443.6155 or 614.444.0432.