Helping Kids Navigate Back-to-School Anxiety
Memories of our own transitions to new schools, new teachers, and new environments can stick with us into adulthood, but it can still be difficult to help children and teenagers navigate life changes in a healthy way. Murray State professor of psychology, Michael Bordieri, visits Sounds Good to discuss ways to lighten the tension and nerves associated with returning to school.
Back-to-school jitters are nothing new, and these feelings of anxiety and excitement often continue in adulthood with the start of a new college semester, a new job, or a big move. As parents, siblings, or mentors of children and teens going through their own transitions, these personal experiences don't always make it easier to help identify and ease kids' anxieties. Communication is key to understanding and solving anxiety that can manifest in a myriad of different ways.
"The first thing to do is to normalize it," Bordieri explains. "It's okay, in fact, it's normal and healthy to experience some degree of anxiety. That change and anticipating what that means -- it's normal to have some level of worry or concerns bout what that might look like." For kids experiencing mild to moderate anxiety, reassurance, problem solving, and routine building can all help soothe frazzled nerves.
"One thing parents often want to do is reassure, and reassurance can be helpful. 'Things are going to be okay, things are going to work out.' But what also can be helpful is actually engaging in problem solving or helping your child kind of think through some of their concerns out loud. Often we find that kids can be pretty good problem solvers if we help them to be. So, if they're worried about 'well, I won't have anyone to eat with at lunch,' it might be helpful for them to figure out what their plan might be. Are there go-to friends they could eat with? Would it be okay if they had no one to eat with at lunch and what could they do? Sometimes it's helpful to have kids kind of think those thoughts out loud instead of just going quick to 'oh, don't worry about it, it'll be fine.' Because sometimes, we still worry even when others tell us not to," Bordieri says. "Sometimes back to school rituals like setting a routine, going shopping for school supplies, picking out a first outfit, finding out where the bus will pick you up or where you're going to get dropped off, a lot of schools will do a back to school sort of prep thing in the weeks leading up -- all those activities can kind of help make the transition and be ready for the first day."
"Other things we can do are make school fun. So this would be, what sort of rewards are there for children when they go to school and are successful in that environment and kind of have that separation from parents? That could be maybe a favorite snack in the lunchbox, something they don't get at home but can have when they're in school. Or pairing activities after school or in that first week so that going to school, you know, afterwards, there are some fun things happening in their world as well. Those can all help," Bordieri adds.
Reframing anxiety to be a sign of positive emotion can also help kids to navigate their feelings more openly and healthily. "Anxiety is normal and is a sign that something matters, something's important in this new thing. When kids are anxious about school, it also suggests that they care about it, they're excited about it, invested in it. So I think it's sometimes helpful to show both sides of that. Anxiety comes along with excitement and the fact that there's something important there. Whether it be friends,s ports, classes, clubs, whatever the sort of piece of school that matters most to the child, that anxiety is probably related to caring about those things, too," Bordieri explains.
It's important to note that there are differing levels of anxiety, and each child or teen handles these feelings differently. "We want to be careful to make a distinction between healthy, normal, every day sort of stress and anxiety that comes about with these transitions because some folks really do struggle to a greater extent," says Bordieri. "Those are the cases where we might recommend looking at more intensive sort of help. Maybe therapy or time with a therapist or behavioral provider who could help really work through more serious or severe anxiety."
To determine if a child or teen in your life is experiencing more severe symptoms of anxiety, "I think the pieces we might look for [are] more physiological or somatic symptoms. So, these would be things like headaches, sick to the stomach every day, not feeling well enough to go to school. Kids, especially younger kids, often don't tell us 'hey, I'm really worried about this.' We often see it through other ways, like kind of feeling uneasy, saying they need to see a doctor, and those might be signs that, yeah, seek out a medical provider, and kind of think out and rule out maybe this could be anxiety as well to help support."
"For most children, the transition is tricky the first few days, especially in the new school, a week or two. For most kids, that anxiety sort of falls away as they make connections and sort of gain mastery of their new space. But if it lingers around, or if it's getting more severe, those could be times where reaching out to a mental health professional can really help and get the child back on track and really engage fully in the school environment, so they can get all the wonderful social and other activities that come along with being back in the classroom," Bordieri concludes.