5 Ways to Ease Your Child’s Back to School Anxiety
By Bryana Kappadakunnel, LMFT, IFECMHS @consciousmommy
Returning to school can be an exciting time for some children. But for others, Back To School brings stress, anxiety, and worries. It makes sense when you look at it from a child’s point-of-view: it can be a big transition to go from late nights and relaxed days to early mornings and structured routines. We all enjoy the freedom and spontaneity that summertime brings.
With all the support and encouragement children get in an educational environment, it’s also an environment that places a ton of demands on your child’s physical, emotional, and mental resources. Between standardized tests, behavioral expectations, lack of physical movement opportunities, and more, many children utilize a significant amount of effort just to stay regulated and present for the entire school day.
In my practice with families, I routinely see parents and children alike stressed about the transition back to school. Organizing drop-off, pick-off, after school care, playdates, homework, meals, and all that goes into the balancing act of managing multiple schedules are taxing on everybody. And don’t get me started on the morning routines. There never feels like there is enough time, and only the Disney princess parents get out the door on time without a bribe or a threat.
From our children’s perspective, they’re worrying if they will be liked at school by their peers; if the bully will notice them again; if their teacher will be overly critical; if they’ll be able to keep up with everything being asked of them; if people will notice how their body has changed; if they’ll be as smart as everybody expects them to be. Really young children may be worried about being separated from you for such a long time.
These are valid worries…even if they’re things you wouldn’t be worried about. When we can start to see the world from our child’s perspective, it gives us a new way inside their minds (and their hearts) so we can actually be the supportive guide they need.
Thankfully, a little preparation for this transition can go a long way. In my 11-year career as a psychotherapist for infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and beyond, I have found that these 5 tips help ease your children’s anxiety and support a smooth transition back to school.
5 Ways to Ease Your Child’s Back to School Anxiety
1. Create a Calendar
Having the option to visually see when they’ll be returning to school can be a great way for children to manage their anxiety about the transition. This helps your children feel more in control of their schedule, and becomes a point of reference for them to revisit anytime they need to.
For some children, 2 weeks in advance is enough time for them to mentally prepare. Other children may feel stressed anticipating the change, and so I recommend we give those children a shorter advanced notice.
Creating a calendar can be as simple as drawing some squares on a piece of paper, and having your child count down the days before they head back to school. I encourage you to invite your child into the creative process with you. Kids are more invested in using the Calendar as a tool to de-stress when they are actively involved in creating it.
Everyday, perhaps while sharing a meal with your child, take the calendar off of the refrigerator and present it like this:
“This is your Back-to-School calendar! Let’s count how many more days of summer we have before you go back to school.”
For younger children, time is an abstract concept, so talk about it in terms of ‘sleeps’: “In 7 more sleeps, it will be your first day of Elementary school!”
Older kids may not be open to making the calendar. That’s okay. You can encourage them to find a way to keep track of the timeline that feels aligned with them.
You can use the calendar as a springboard for discussion. Some sample reflective questions might be:
- What’s one thing you’re looking forward to at school this year?
- What’s one thing you’re not excited about?
- Where do you hope you’ll sit?
- Are there any friends you’re looking forward to seeing?
2. Validate Their Feelings
You may feel tempted to respond to your child’s Back-to-School jitters with something like,
- “But you love school!”
- “But your best friend will be there with you.”
- “There’s nothing to be worried about. You’re gonna do great.”
- “Everybody likes you! What are you talking about?”
- “I’m just gonna be at work all day. You’ll be too busy to miss me.”
- “Don’t worry about that bully. Sticks & stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you.”
- “Just do what your teacher says, and she’ll like you.”
When we dismiss, deny, or reject our children’s feelings, we do not set them up for a successful transition back to school. We are far more supportive when we validate their feelings with genuine empathy, compassion, and kindness.
Many parents ask me, “Will validating my children’s feelings make them feel their anxiety is valid?”
And the answer to that is: No. We’re not validating our children to prove or disprove the anxiety they feel. We don’t even validate to make the anxiety go away. Fixing the anxiety is not our job as parents.
Our job is to provide a container for the anxiety. A sense of safety around the anxiety. We validate our children’s emotions to give them a sense of connection, even in the vulnerable stress and discomfort they’re feeling.
Some ways to validate might sound like:
- “You’re worried about starting school again. I hear that. I know you loved last year. I wonder what you’re worried about this year?”
- “You’re afraid no one will like you. That’s a tough feeling. I wonder who will be there who you feel safe and comfortable with?”
- “You’re nervous the work will be too much. That makes sense. I saw you work so hard last year. I wonder how I can support you this year?”
- “It makes you scared to be away from me for such a long time. I’ll really miss you, too. You know we’re always connected by our invisible strings made of love.”
- “That bully situation sounds really hard. I wonder how I can support you in feeling fully safe at school. May I talk to your principal about this situation? Who’s a friend at school who will support you no matter what? Who do you stand up for, no matter what?”
- “Sounds like you already feel like your teacher won’t like you. That’s a hard feeling to have. What gives you the impression that she won’t like you?”
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3. Utilize Books or Stories to Explore Fears
There are plenty of books about returning back to school and managing the stress around separation. My two favorites are A Kissing Hand for Chester Racoon and the Invisible String. Another great book for kids about anxiety is Wilma Jean the Worry Machine. There are books about bullying, like Marlene Marlene the Queen of Mean. The Berenstain Bears Get Ready for School helps kids learn to better manage the demands of the morning routine. Choose stories that are unique to your child’s level of comprehension, interest, and particular issue.
If you can’t find a book, you can always make a book. I call them Empathy Books, and these are effective tools to help children express their feelings and vividly explore them through storytelling.
The process is simple. Get a few sheets of paper, fold them in half, and staple along the edge.
Work with your child to choose a title. For example, “My Back to School Worries.”
As your child expresses their worries through the character they create, your job is to validate and then be curious: “What would help this character feel less worried?”
You will feel tempted to simply ignore these jitters and just assume your child will move on from them. While some children may very well do just that, other children may be under-supported by less engagement. Your job is to notice and offer support. It’s your child’s job to accept support if they need it. Trust in this division of responsibility.
4. Avoid Morning Screen Time
I strongly recommend limiting access to screens in the morning before school. They can contribute to chaos and internal distress, even if it appears to temporarily give you a moment’s break. Particularly as children become tweens and teens, research suggests that more than 1 hour per day of screen time is associated with lower psychological well-being, including less curiosity, lower self-control, increased attention span issues, challenges with making friends, less emotional regulation, more distress in the child-parent relationship, and inability to complete tasks.
If your kid has become used to unlimited AM screen time use, consider putting some limits on morning screen time about 2 weeks prior to the start of school to get your child’s brain used to less stimulation first thing in the morning.
Additionally, take the time to discuss with your child how the morning routine will go in advance. It’s important that this conversation be a collaborative one. Dictating with rules, expectations, and threats will not support the flow of the morning routine, nor will it support your relationship with your child.
Suggested talking points include:
- What time they need to be awake
- Breakfast routine
- Getting dressed
- Hygiene like brushing teeth, hair, etc
- Backpack, lunchbox, and homework collection
- What happens if kiddo refuses the routine: for example, a natural consequence to refusing to get dressed may mean your child goes to school in their pajamas. Plan for these incidentals with your child. Perhaps even write them out and revisit them frequently prior to the transition.
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5. Prioritize AM/PM Connection
5 minutes can go a long way. Especially when a child is nervous about going back to school, 5 minutes of our presence, time, and affection can act as a buffer to help get them through the day. So prioritize 5 minutes of connection every morning, even if it’s talking over breakfast or reading a quick story together.
Being away from you for an entire day can be a lot on some kids. When you do reunite, prioritize the first 5 minutes by simply being present and affectionate toward your child. Put your phone away. Don’t worry about getting dinner started at that very moment. When we take these 5 minutes to enter into our child’s world, not only does it ease our children’s distress, but it also gives them a sense of safety around separation and reunification.
If you’re needing more parent support, you can connect with me in many ways. My newsletter, the Conscious Connection, offers weekly insights & guidance. My online workshops & classes have helped thousands of parents learn to parent more effectively, without the use of punishments or bribes. I’m on social media, where I offer valuable posts that will inspire you to become the conscious parent you never had.