End Back-to-school Anxiety: 12 Tips to Prep the Whole Family
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Just as your family was relishing in barbequed dinners on the deck, sleeping late, catching fireflies at night and spending marathon days at the pool, it's time for the school year to begin. Goodbye relaxing vacation, hello super-stressed out back-to-school mode.
No matter what grade your child is entering there are so many reasons for students to feel anxious. There's the pressure to make good grades and be popular, the burden of an increased workload, the fear of not getting picked for a team or making first chair in the band, the logistics of meeting a school bus or finding a new locker, the "what am I going to wear" freak out, or the plain separation from Mom that keeps school from being cool.
"I'm a neurotic mom and back-to-school drives me nuts," says Cori Britt of Belmont, CA. "I'm worried how my often-anxious nine-year-old daughter will handle the change as well as why my seven-year-old son can stay so relaxed about the transition."
No matter how much a child genuinely enjoys school, the anticipation of carefree summer days turning into a schedule-driven school week can be difficult. "Often the concept of the start of a school year brings much greater anxiety than the reality of going back to class," says Susan Bartell, Psy.D., a parenting psychologist and author of The Top 50 Questions Kids Ask. We asked Dr. Bartell along with psychotherapist Robi Ludwig, Psy.D, Care.com's parenting expert, to offer advice for making the back-to-school transition a little more worry free for you and your kids so you can all enjoy the last days of summer:
- Spot the signs of anxiety. Some children are simply more apprehensive than others. No matter the age, children might have nightmares, a change in their sleeping and eating patterns or develop new fears. In addition, older children might talk about a friend who is nervous about school (yep, it's really them!); isolate themselves; become snippy, angry or depressed or frequently ask questions about school. Most anxiety is normal and mixed with excitement, but a drastic change that interferes with your child's normal activities (like not sleeping or eating) should be brought to a doctor's attention, explains Dr. Bartell.
- Chill out. We don't mean poolside. Kids sense when parents are nervous and this can exacerbate a child's anxiety -- or create one -- about school," says Dr. Ludwig. Often parents are way more anxious to prep for September (finding after-school help, planning carpooling logistics, and all the mom-social-drama) but you can't make it your child's problem. "Take a cue from your kid: If he's not anxious, you don't need to get all worked up," says Dr. Bartell.
- Reroute the routine. Don't cut summer short but do prep kids to get their bodies ready for a school schedule. That means you need to phase in earlier bedtimes (TV is all re-runs anyway) and wake up times (squeeze in more outdoor activities while the weather is nice). Face it: Children are not going to be happy about this, but they will fare much better when the alarm clock goes off at 6 a.m. come September.
- Respect their feelings. "When your child talks about being anxious, let her vent," says Dr. Ludwig. "You need to allow her to feel anxious and then remind her it's okay to have these feelings." She's not necessarily looking for you to fix everything, she just wants you to listen. You can also remind her that many of her classmates feel uneasy about returning to school, too, so everyone is in the same boat.
- Get psyched. Now that you've talked about your son's middle school angst, find out what he's excited about. New school supplies, new clothes, a new locker to decorate, science club, gym class or running for school president? It's important to help guide your child to think about the positive.
- Reminisce. "Often kids build up anxiety about school work and sports and forget what a great time they had last school year," says Dr. Bartell. "Reinforce what you know is true." Does your daughter make new friends easily? Maybe your son won last year's spelling bee. Remind them of the great things that happened before summer started. If your kid had troubles, talk about what you can both do to make school a better experience this time around. "Trust your children can do great and empower them with that they need to have a successful year," says Dr. Bartell.
- Don't apply pressure. Kids want to please parents but getting all A's on a report card or winning the school poetry contest is no guarantee. And it doesn't make your child any less wonderful if they aren't high achievers. "Let him know you do not expect perfect grades and he should do the best he can," says Dr. Ludwig. "Set out your reasonable expectations in case your son has unfounded anxiety about meeting a high standard you don't even have." Kids need your support to succeed in school and labeling someone a poor student can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Dr. Ludwig suggests building up self-esteem and lowering academic angst by exploring your daughter's strengths. It might not even be in the classroom. Maybe she doesn't excel in art but she's a great writer with a column in the school paper. Your fidgety pre-K kid might not be able to stay put during circle time but he's a strong teacher's helper. Join now to contact top tutors near you
- Ask your caregiver. As summer winds down ask your child's nanny or babysitter if she has noticed any signs of apprehension about the upcoming school year. After all, she knows your kid's personality well. Sometimes a child might feel more comfortable confiding in a caregiver than a parent so she could have insight about fears.
- Stave off social drama. Your child is never too old for playdates, they just might not like to use that term! Little kids can fret over entering a class where they don't recognize any faces while older kids worry about being able to make new friends or wonder if they will still have strong connections with friends who were at different camps over the summer. Organize play time for new kids to be introduced (ask the school if you can get a class list) as well as special time to bond with familiar buddies. And lead by example, Mom and Dad. The whole family should take the opportunity to branch out, and talk about how nice it is to meet new people.
- Meet and greet. Change can be scary. When possible, help to familiarize your child with a new school and teachers. Drive the bus route; tour the building or classroom; locate lockers and cubbies; point out the bathroom, cafeteria and the playground for recess. Preschool teachers often visit children at home or offer a transition-week before school starts so they have a small level of comfort upon entering the classroom. If your child's school doesn't offer this perk, ask for it!
- Shop wisely. In theory, the back to school season is fun (though maybe only for you), but you don't want to push summer out the door with heavy shopping outings. Limit anxiety by only doing light-shopping for clothes and supplies -- and then keeping all the merchandise out of sight until the bathing suits get put away for the season. (Read our tips on clearing out the clutter and getting organized.)
- Stay sharp. Many older kids get work assigned to them over summer so there's some minimal studying to keep their mind in check. But if you think your child will lose a lot of momentum without summer work, Dr. Bartell suggests practice sessions 2 or 3 times a week for an hour throughout the summer. (Find a tutor.) Help younger kids with academic art projects that are an engaging way to learn but also have fun. Think about projects that involve matching, simple math problems, shapes, letters or vocabulary that don't feel like a lesson.
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