Shruti Tewari, MD, is board certified in general psychiatry and child/adolescent psychiatry. She has a strong interest in treating childhood anxiety disorders and provides psychiatric evaluations, medication management, therapy and developmental guidance at the Inova Kellar Center, a behavioral health service for children and families.
Starting a new school year is an exciting time, but for many kids it also triggers a case of back-to-school butterflies. These 12 tips will help you spot the signs and support a nervous child.
- Pay attention to transitions. Any child can experience back-to-school anxiety, but those going through a transition can be particularly sensitive. Children who have moved to a new school or are transitioning into middle school or high school might need some extra reassurance.
- Recognize behavior changes. Some kids tell you they’re worried about the first day of school, but many don’t mention it. Younger kids might not have the vocabulary to describe what they’re feeling. Adolescents might be embarrassed or reluctant to share. But actions sometimes speak louder than words. Is your 7-year-old suddenly afraid of the dark? Is your teen unusually defiant or strangely quiet? New behavior problems could be a clue that they’re feeling anxious.
- Check in with yourself. Kids pick up on their parents’ stress. If you’re nervous about your son’s first day of Kindergarten or stressed about your daughter heading to high school, they might be getting the message that they should be worried, too. Try to keep your own stress levels in check, and stay calm around your kids.
- Encourage conversation. You don’t have to ask your kids if they’re scared, but you can let them know you’re willing to listen. Try asking open-ended questions about school: How are you feeling about going to middle school? What are you looking forward to this year?
- Help them reframe. Parents often want to fix everything for their kids. But sometimes, the best thing to do is listen empathetically and help them find their own solutions. I know you’re disappointed Jacob isn’t in your class this year. Is there anyone in your class you think you might like to get to know better?”
- Think positive. Figure out what parts of the school year your child is most excited about – seeing friends, buying back-to-school supplies, drama club – and help to focus his or her attention on that.
- Remind them of successes. Kids sometimes need a gentle reminder that they’ve overcome fears before. Remember how nervous you were to go to camp this summer? But you did it and ended up having a great time!
- Do a dry run. The unknown can be scary. If your school offers a student orientation, take advantage of it. Most schools are open to parents and students visiting before the first day. Arrange a visit so kids can see what their classrooms will look like, where their lockers are and where they’ll be eating lunch.
- Stick to a routine. Summer schedules are often more relaxed. In the days or weeks before going back to school, try to re-establish a regular meal and bedtime routine to streamline the transition.
- Plan something fun. A trip to the zoo, a sleepover with a friend, going out for ice cream – make a fun weekend plan for the end of the first week. It will give your child something to look forward to, and a reason to celebrate.
- Get the kids involved. Let them pick out their first-day outfits, pack their own lunches or plan a special first-day breakfast.
- Reach out for help. Nervous kids might take a few weeks to settle into the school routine, so don’t panic if they’re still feeling anxious after the first few days. But if your child has lasting behavior problems, sleep problems, seems worried all the time or continues to have trouble calming down or socializing at school, there might be more going on. If your child’s anxiety is persistent and interferes with daily life, consider talking to his or her counselor or a mental health professional.
The Inova Kellar Center, located in Fairfax, VA, provides behavioral health services for children, adolescents and their families. Call 703-218-8500 to schedule an intake with a mental health counselor.