It’s time for a new and exciting school year: new clothes, new shoes, new supplies, new haircuts and new teachers. However, for some children the thought of school, same friends (or lack thereof), siblings’ hand-me-downs or a pre-existing medical condition can bring on negative feelings.
Most children are somewhere in between, beginning a new year with a combination of apprehension and excitement. There are a few, however, who feel extremely uncomfortable going back to school. Their thoughts wonder and settle on fear. Their bodies shake or freeze, palms sweat, heart beats faster, their worries take hold and lead them to bite their nails, cry, become oppositional or refuse to separate from parents. Anxiety about school can be based on rational (prior experiences) or irrational (lack of information) fears.
Anxiety is common in children, but much more extreme with new activities and the unknown. With school, there is more pressure from peers and more demands to keep up with the latest electronics, gaming and fashion trends. This leads to an internal dialogue full of questions prior to the first day of school: Will I make friends? Will I be able to raise my hand without my stomach hurting? Will the teacher pick on me? Will I make the basketball team this year? Will I make it to school on time? And so on.
Such worries can manifest as shyness, physical symptoms, anger and acting out behaviors, as well as inattention. Anxiety is a combination of genetic factors and environmental characteristics, which may require intervention from adults in order to correct or improve overall functioning.
Some parents worry that their children will be bullied or treated unfairly. Some may worry that their children will eat too much sugar or gluten, forget to drink water or take their medicine, hurt themselves or be exposed to illicit substances and inappropriate material. Some concerns are well founded, whereas others are overinflated worries parents have no control over.
These worries often lead parents to model anxiety to their children (without wanting to), repeat their concerns to their children or to other adults in front of their children, or may drive them to engage in unhealthy habits to cope with the anxiety. This, in turn, breeds worry in their children.
Parents can help children identify their worries, talk about, adapt, and cope with their fears. When parents meet school beginnings or other challenges with confidence, honesty and a good action plan, children in turn learn to respond in more appropriate ways. And when parents model a calm, problem-solving attitude, children experience less anxiety themselves.
The most important element that will help children be more emotionally prepared for school is organization: organization of thought and personal belongings. Time management, coping strategies and good communication skills are also necessary toward decreased anxiety, improved confidence, self-reliance and expression of feelings/thoughts.
Parents need to stay educated and work on their own anxieties or other emotional/mental health problems in order to support their children’s development, as well as their academic and social experiences.