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How 2 experts say you can help your kids beat back-to-school anxiety

Melissa Roja Lawlor
July 13, 2018

As the summer draws to a close, many families are dealing with anxiety about going back to school  or in some cases, kids who are going to school for the first time. To better understand back-to-school anxiety, Care.com sat down with two anxiety experts, Drs. Laurie and Fred Zelinger, a husband and wife team of licensed psychologists with more than 70 years of combined experience working in schools.

Dr. Laurie Zelinger is the author of Please Explain Anxiety to Me!, which is designed to help children learn to manage their worries and fears. Together, the Zelingers told us how to best handle moments when the back-to-school-anxiety monster rears its ugly head for parents and children alike.

How can parents help their children with worries about a new school year?

FZ: Children need to know that they are safe, and they have to know that we as their parents will keep them safe. And this feeling of safety feeds into their anxiety if they're going to new places, because they don't know if they're going to be safe. Any reassurance you can give them about the new place is key. Saying things like, "We picked this school for you. We feel really good about it. It's a place we trust," helps the child.

LZ: And encourage the child to open the lines of communication with you. Ask them to tell you if they're feeling unsafe or if something is scary for them or if they are having trouble with something. They have to know you are in this together.

What strategies would you suggest for parents who are coping with anxiety about their child's school transition?

FZ: One of the big sources for children's anxiety is actually parent anxiety. In dealing with a child who is anxious, if you yourself are anxious, it's really hard to be the one who helps.  So parents need to manage their own anxiety as part of the process, which means they must anticipate and think through things they may be anxious about and try to work it out ahead of time. If, as a parent, I'm anxious about sending my child off to school for the first time, without even knowing it, I'm probably communicating to the child that there is something to be nervous about. Most of the time it's non-verbal communication, most of it is how they see us handle new situations. Children model.

LZ: The more information you get about what you're going to be experiencing, the better. Having information ahead of time tends to help you figure out what the sources of anxiety are. Get as much information as you can about the situation that the child is going into.

Also, you can pack familiar and comforting things in your child's backpack, such as a cup they're used to drinking with or a piece of a blanket that they might need for reassurance. Adjusting to a new situation at school or a new caretaker is tough enough, and having all new supplies and nothing familiar around can be even more overwhelming. Reduce the strangeness and unfamiliarity as much as you can by including what the child already knows.

How can families better prepare for the transition from summer into the school year?

LZ: Start to organize your life around a school schedule in the summer. For example, keep your child reading throughout the summer if you can. They'll be better equipped because their brains will be "on" when September comes. Before you start back to school, get the kids up earlier so that their biological clock adjusts and so the transition is not so abrupt. Do as much as you can in advance. Pack backpacks the night before. Leave them by the door with jackets. Pack lunches the night before. I used to do a week's worth of lunches and freeze them.

FZ: It's more for reducing the parent's stress than the kid's. What's more stressful for the child than having a parent running around the house in the morning screaming, "You're gonna miss your bus!"

How can parents help their children deal with worries about a new school year?

FZ: It helps to acclimate kids to a new environment as early as possible. Visit the school ahead of time. Play in the playground. Read stories that feature schools in them. Anything even remotely connected to school in a non-threatening and fun way helps the child adapt to the concept of school.

LZ: Try to give your child as much exposure to school as you can in a non-threatening, playful way. In the summer, I like to have parents take the child's favorite snack to the school playground and eat it there. Or take some sidewalk chalk and write the child's name on the blacktop in the summer; anything to familiarize the child with the environment. Have the child take photographs so that he or she can look at them over the summer so it won't be a strange place in the fall. Or take a playful approach: play school. Have the child pretend to be the teacher or the principal. They get to decide what to do. Get some oak tag and ask your child about what he thinks the rules should be, and you can write those and stick them on the board.

FZ: Schools do a number of interesting things that aren't inherent in home life. They ask children to line up, sit in one place for a long time, stop doing something and start something else. Parents might want to think about how to help their children adapt to these school-related procedures through play.

What ways can parents detect if their child is having normal back-to-school jitters or if they should take it more seriously than that?

FZ: There are three things parents should pay attention to: frequency, intensity and duration of symptoms of anxiety. If the kid occasionally expresses concerns about school, that's pretty normal. But usually that comes with some excitement about school. Normal jitters don't usually include a negative expression.

If a kid is saying he's worried constantly, or if the kid is crying, screaming or can't sleep, you need to pay attention to the intensity of the symptoms, how long this behavior has lasted and how often it occurs. This is where knowing your child becomes so important. Hopefully you've seen your child manage anxiety somewhere in his life before. You should be able to discriminate whether or not the reaction you're seeing seems excessive. And how many of those behaviors are you seeing? If there are many, such as restlessness, trouble with eating and sleeping, pay attention to that and talk about it with them — especially if it's beginning to interfere in daily activities, then you need to address them in conversation.

For more tips, read the rest of our Care.com Interview Series: Back-to-School.

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