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Aug 04, 2022

Tips for Parents to Help Little Ones Alleviate Back-to-School Fears

By Lori Draz

Every child handles heading into the classroom differently. While most enjoy being in the company of others, social anxieties are easily triggered in a significant portion of the population. This is especially true for students going to a classroom for the first time – for those starting a new school and those who have moved up into a new level of learning.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) reports that 5 percent of school-age children experience separation and performance anxiety, and that number has grown larger following the months of distance learning and limited social interactions, following the pandemic.

Going to school can be pretty scary for some preschoolers who have secure attachments to parents or caregivers. These kids seek reassurance, begging you to stay with them. They may also throw a tantrum, say they feel sick or refuse to transition into the classroom. 

You can help by taking these kids on a preliminary tour of the school. Tell them how excited you are that they are about to embark on the journey of education. You may even want to “play” school at home to get them used to the routines, disciplines and manners needed for a successful experience.

It’s nice to give your child a little reminder of home that they can carry with them, and be sure to offer positive reinforcement for every day they show independence. Try letting them earn stickers or points for going to school without complaining which can be used for something special, like a fun day out or new book or movie. 

As students progress through elementary school, you may see additional anxieties. There is an increased pressure placed on students, even in the early grades, and not everyone learns the same way. Additionally, these early years are when learning disabilities and personality conflicts come to the surface. Be sure to stay in touch with teachers about your child’s performance. It may sometime look like a student is uncooperative, ill-tempered or undisciplined when actually they are experiencing an undiagnosed difficulty which is heightened more when they compare their own performance to their classmates.

Some children suffer with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and social anxiety. These kids worry about a myriad of things, from speaking in front of class, to test taking, to nervousness about anything that might have an embarrassing outcome. This can result in headaches, fitful sleeping or too much sleeping, sweating, shortness of breath and rapid heartbeats. Some can’t even walk into a classroom, or spend a full day in class without nausea or pains. This is not a passing “didn’t study for the test” anxiety; these students suffer every day. 

The pressures only grow as a student advances through the upper grades. Peer pressure, overloaded schedules of classes, clubs, sports and community service, puberty, experimentation with drugs and alcohol, changing schools, losing siblings to college, college applications, real and perceived expectations of parents, coaches and teachers with added the pressure of social media, lack of sleep, unhealthy diets, all while trying to find their own voices and selves, can make these some of the most stressful times of their lives. 

The most important thing parents can do is stay involved. In younger children, be aware of when, how and why a student may exhibit anxiety behaviors. It is also important to not cave in. Parents must set age-appropriate boundaries, and be firm about not letting the younger children stay home if they resist school.

The next thing is to try to find the causes of anxiety. Discuss your concerns with a pediatrician to rule out physical issues, like allergies, musculoskeletal issues as well as eyesight and hearing impairments. Be aware of bullying and intimidation behaviors in the school setting. Don’t put non-competitive kids in competitive arenas as this creates more anxiety. Conversely, if your child is unruly, moody or argumentative, give them activities that don’t create as many opportunities for outbursts. 

If that doesn’t work, it is time to explore the psychological. For this, we turned to Gretchen Morgan, LCSW and owner of Lighthouse Counseling & Sand Play Training Center.  

According to Morgan, “Anxiety is a common emotional and physiological experience that impacts all of us if the conditions are right. Anxiety can be mild, like feeling butterflies in your stomach when you have to introduce yourself on the first day of school, to a debilitating sense of panic and dysregulated somatic experience like school phobia, acute separation anxiety, social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, selective mutism and others. The most important distinction in evaluating your child with anxiety is whether or not the anxiety interferes with their social or educational functioning. If your child is unable to interact socially without significant distress, or is unable to function in school as a result of their anxiety, you need to contact a therapist who is trained in child and adolescent developmental issues. Children with this level of acute anxiety will benefit from weekly psychotherapy that incorporates child-centered techniques like Sand Play Therapy and EMDR, and the therapist may also recommend an evaluation with a psychiatrist to see if medication would help the situation. I recommend all my clients reporting anxiety receive a full medical work-up as sometimes anxiety can be a symptom of an underlying health issue like thyroid disease or vitamin deficiencies. 

“It is important to note, however, that all children will experience anxiety in their school years. The great news is that there are many ways to regulate anxiety that do not require a professional intervention. The easiest exercise for kids (and parents) is learning how to breathe in a regulated way. Find a quiet place to sit (preferably outside in nature) and put one hand over your heart and one over your belly. Next you will breathe in through your nose for four seconds, pause your breath for six seconds and then breath out through your mouth for eight seconds. Repeat this sequence 10 times to experience a sense of relaxation. I also recommend eliminating caffeine and food with artificial coloring and leaving sugary sweets for special occasions only. Limiting access to electronics and getting plenty of sunshine, exercise and sleep is also great to prevent excess anxiety from building up.”

So as you begin your new school year, take a deep breath and give your children plenty of attention and support.