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Mind on Health: Taming those back-to-school butterflies


For most kids, there’s nothing like the phrase “Back to School” to throw cold pool water on an otherwise glorious summer vacation.

At the first mention of back- to-school preparation, many children experience a passing wave of apprehension. However, for some children, the thought of going back to school can trigger anxiety that interferes with their daily life. How can you tell just how anxious your child is and whether you should do something about it?

Generally speaking, children might struggle with a few fears about how they’ll like their new teacher or whether they will find their way around a new school, but they have enough intrinsic coping mechanisms or experience in their life to know that they’ve gotten through new situations before and they will again.

However, children who already have anxiety like predictability and the thought of a new school year can trigger debilitating fears.

For these children, the “if” questions become huge: What if I can’t find my classroom? What if I have no friends in my classes? What if my teacher doesn’t like me? What if my bus driver doesn’t know where to take me home? If your child asks these questions over and over despite your repeated, logical and comforting answers, this can be a red flag that help is needed.

Kids might also complain of stomach aches and headaches, have interrupted sleep or nightmares and try to avoid anything remotely connected to school, including their friends, and even ask to skip the first day back.

Recognizing and reacting

While we all have a level of anxiety that is helpful — like “If I don’t do my homework, I might fail so I better do it” — some anxiety is pathologic and keeps us from being able to function. It is important to look for a possible underlying cause, such as separation anxiety or fear of leaving a parent for an extended period, fear of bullying on the bus, or academic work that is too hard and causes feelings of being overwhelmed. Sometimes it can be hard to tell whether they are just having some normal anticipatory anxiety that will pass the minute they get to school. The bottom line is that your child should be able to continue to eat and sleep normally, see friends when they want to and carry on activities of daily life, even if the thought of school doesn’t necessarily thrill them. If, on the other hand, they display excessive clinginess, say they don’t want to sleep alone or repeatedly ask “what if” questions for several weeks, it may be time to seek help.

Parents can pursue many avenues to obtain help for their child, including talking with their primary care provider, the school guidance office or child therapists and psychologists who may be able to provide specialized individual or group therapy. One approach that can be highly beneficial is cognitive behavioral therapy, which uses practical approaches to solve problems. Many guidance counselors will provide school schedules and let you come in to walk through — or even arrange a meeting with the teacher beforehand to build familiarity and comfort. Come up with a contingency plan — a place your child knows he can go if he feels overwhelmed, like to a trusted teacher, the nurse or the guidance counselor. Also, make sure the cause for anxiety isn’t something else you need to address, like being bullied or struggling academically.

If your child remains highly anxious and it is interfering with normal activities despite therapy and comforting measures, a referral to a psychiatrist may be warranted.

Remember, even your older child transitioning to high school may have some anxiety and can benefit from talking with you about fears and taking a trip to tour the new school during the summer. Most students really enjoy the freedom of high school and end up doing much better than parents think they will.

Watching a child’s anxiety level rise can set parents on edge, but it’s imperative that you remain calm. Offer reassurance and encouragement; let them know that even though you know this is something new and new things can seem scary, you believe they can do it.

Changing your expectations of them is not a good idea. Continue normalcy in the home, as the structure itself is helpful. Do not allow your anxious child to stay up late with you or skip chores while the siblings have to carry on as usual. As tempting as it may be to keep them home on mornings when there are lots of tears, it is extremely important to still send your child to school.

Instead, remind your children of all the times they have successfully negotiated new situations and replace their negative self-talk with positive reinforcements. Get as many people on board as you can — at school and at home — to reinforce the encouragement. Make sure your child knows every other student is experiencing the same new things and together, you will all get through it.

Jeanne Logan is a pediatric nurse practitioner in the Department of Psychiatry at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

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