Is Your Child Anxious About Going Back To School? Here's How You Can Help
No matter how outgoing and social your kid is and no matter the age, there's likely going to be a time that they feel anxious about going to school. Liken it to your own feelings: Perhaps there are days when you don't want to go into the office because you're stressed over a project, or perhaps it's a social gathering that you're dreading. Feeling anxiety about life's must-do's is normal.
This being said: There are ways you can help your kid recognize how they're feeling, address it, and deal with it productively. (Just as you likely have to do with any situation that gives you stress.) So we chatted with author and education expert Caroline Maguire, PCC, M.Ed., about how to help your little one with any school-related growing pains—and how to recognize when your kid's behavior has surpassed normal anxiety levels.
"If you have an anxious kid, it's one of those things that will keep you up at night, Googling how to find ways to help," she says. "And the thing is, other people are full of advice about what to do, so parents can start to feel overwhelmed with information." But here, Maguire outlines what steps you can take—confusion-free.
Identify that there's an issue.
This might be as simple as your young one saying they don't want to go to an after-school activity or them admitting they are avoiding the lunchroom. "Luckily, elementary-school kids tend to go to their parents easier with information; they might even be as blatant as 'I don't want to go; I don't want to do this,'" says Maguire. "The older they get, they start to wear that mask where they don't want to talk to us, but they are snippy and moody."
But sometimes, their stress will manifest itself physically: "When you think about a young kid, they tend to show stress in their body, how they act, and even physically acting out. Maybe they're fidgety or start displaying nonsocial behavior, saying that they want to leave. As parents we get annoyed. We think or say things like, 'You're being inappropriate.' But it's usually a sign that their stress level has risen to a point where they cannot cope."
Ask open-ended questions.
If you notice this as a trend, Maguire says to start asking questions: "With anxious kids, they tend to have this deep inner emotional world, and our job is to try and open them up enough so we can bring those fears to light."
And as we might tell children themselves: There are no stupid questions. Just ask anything that might get the conversation going. An easy starting point, according to Maguire: "Just say something like 'I don't know what you mean by that; can you tell me more?'"
Let them talk.
"Parents tend to hear things, are horrified, and then jump right into solutions," says Macquire. Stop yourself—by jumping in right away, you might be discouraging them to keep on sharing. You need the whole picture to come up with adequate solutions. "The best thing to do is to get more information. The more information you have, the more you can look at the situation together. And never judge them for how they're feeling. Look at it from their perspective because then they are a partner."
Help them understand how they're feeling.
One of the most important things you can do to help your kid deal with how they are feeling is to explain to them why they are feeling this way. "I explain to them fight, flight, or freeze. I say to them, 'We have this ancient system that kicks in when we think there is something dangerous coming at us. There's really not, but our body is reacting as if there is,'" she says. "This way they can understand where this emotional flood is coming from. It's been really powerful."
You can even help them visualize their spiral with, well, a spiral. "I literally draw them a spiral: And I explain to them when they get anxious that spiral just gets worse and worse and worse," she says. "And this way they can understand why it's so important to come up with strategies that will pull them out of the spiral."
Work together on anxiety-reducing tactics.
Not every kid is going to respond the same to calming exercises—nor is every classroom the same. So you need to work with them to come up with something that helps them, within the confines of their school day. "I show them a bunch of strategies, and then I let them pick what's possible for them," says Maguire. "You don't want to give a kid a coping mechanism that will only add more stress because it's impossible or hard for them. For example, you don't want to give them something that requires them to go to the bathroom and stretch or some such, if their teachers are strict about leaving during class time."
"Every school is different: Some schools are so chill with this and they allow people to leave when they need to or bring in tools," she says. "But some have all these rules, and if you were to get up in the middle of class, it would put this spotlight on you. If you're the only kid getting up in class? That's just not going to work."
Here are a few go-to's from Maguire: chewing gum and concentrating on slowing down the bites, practicing calming breathing techniques to bring the emotional temperature down, drawing something in a notebook, or taking off shoes under the desk, planting feet on the floor, and grounding themselves.
Don't work around the problem.
"Parents will have endless conversations about the anxiety itself but never the source," says Maguire. "If your kid's anxiety stems from chitchat, yes you want to give them coping tools [like the above], but you need to also address where it's coming from."
So what are some long-term solutions you can look for? Exposure with support. "The kids that I know who have anxiety, they avoid what stresses them out. Exposing your kid—with a support system in place—helps them get better."
Here's what that looks like: Pick one mission, like going to the lunchroom—and that's it. That's the mission. ("We're not asking them to have a totally successful conversation; just that they're going!" she says.) You can build from there.
"Confidence comes from knowing you can. One of the really beautiful things about them going to the lunchroom is that now I can point to them doing it," she says. "I can say, 'You told me you couldn't do this one thing, but you did. Now we know you can do things even if they scare you.' Then you start peeling the onion: What bothers you about being in the lunchroom, and how can we address that?"
When to ask for professional help.
How do you know it's time to seek help from a counselor or family therapist? It's really the same situation as an adult: When they stop being able to engage in the basic activities of life, and it is disrupting day-to-day functions. "They're no longer engaging in the things that are expected," she says. "Or you as a parent are offering so much support for your kid to address these fears that it is taking up and taking over. I'd love for parents to get help before that, but sometimes it escalates quickly and they're not able to see the signs right away."
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