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How to calm back-to-school nerves
Are your kids nervous about heading back to school? Here’s how to help them feel less worried about returning to the classroom.
The lazy days of summer are over. Returning to school brings back busy schedules. For some kids, the new year can also bring worries. They may be concerned about their new teacher or about the workload. They could be stressing about who they’ll sit with at lunch. Or they could feel anxious about making the leap to middle school or high school.
Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to help them feel better about the year to come. Here’s where you can start.
5 stress-soothing tips for back to school
Normalize your child’s feelings. Let your child know that their feelings are OK. Tell them that new things can feel scary. Plus, it’s natural to be jittery about a new school year, no matter how old they are. As you’re talking, you can share a time that you felt nervous about something, too. Be sure to focus on the positive: It was a little hard at first but then everything turned out fine.
You can also remind them about the good things that come with a new school year. They’ll learn new things and make new friends. Maybe they’ll also get some new privileges, too, such as a later bedtime or a later weekend curfew (for older kids).
And don’t forget the power of new school supplies. Buying new notebooks, pencils and other school supplies is fun for kids. Set aside time to pick out things together, then get their homework space set up. You can even decorate it together. That will help them see that you’re excited, too.
Reframe their fears. Kids may have a hard time separating jitters from excitement. Remind them that what they’re feeling is probably a mixture of nerves and excitement. “Tell your child that you believe they can do it,” says Christine M. Nicholson, PhD. She’s a child psychologist in Kirkland, Washington.
Say: “It feels a little challenging and unpredictable. But I know you’ll figure things out,” she says. “It’s like going on a hike that’s exciting. In the end, you’re going to climb a mountain.”
Practice, practice, practice. For kids who are particularly worried about navigating a new building, ask the school if you can arrange a visit before the first day. “Walking through the school and schedule can be reassuring,” says Michael Karp, MD. He’s an Optum pediatrician in Vista, California. “The more they come in contact with their school, the more comfortable they will be,” says Nicholson.
Get back to your routine. Summer sleep schedules have to end before summer does. If you wait until the night before school starts to get back to normal bedtimes, “you’re setting yourself up for failure,” says Dr. Karp. A week before school starts, start adjusting your child’s bedtime so that it’s more in line with what will happen throughout the school year.
“Set up a routine that is similar to what will happen when school starts,” says Fred Medway, PhD. He’s a psychologist and distinguished professor emeritus at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.
Get ready. For younger kids, lay out their clothes the night before. Talk about breakfast choices ahead of time. Create a place where backpacks and shoes will go at the end of the day. Place a basket in your entry hall or kitchen. Teach your kids that that’s where they should put important papers when they come home.
“This helps form good habits,” says Nicholson. Explaining to your child what they should expect on the first day of school will reduce their worries and allow for a better start to the year.
How to spot the signs of anxiety
It’s natural to be jumpy before the first day of school. But how do you know if it’s routine nerves or something more serious? Experts say the following symptoms are red flags:1,2
Sleeplessness. If your child is unable to rest or wakes up in the middle of the night, it could be a sign of anxiety.
Changes in eating habits. Anxious children often refuse food or eat excessively.
Headaches or stomachaches. Everyone complains of these symptoms sometimes. But if the complaints persist, it may be a sign of something more.
Irritability. If your child is quick to get angry, argue or cry, think about talking to your pediatrician or a behavioral health specialist.
Bed-wetting or bathroom accidents. If your child suddenly starts experiencing these symptoms, check with your doctor.
“The body can speak loudly when it’s under a lot of stress,” says Nicholson. Medway agrees, but he adds that parents are usually the first to be aware that something is wrong.
“It really starts with knowing your child,” he says. “If you see that they’re smiling less, sleeping worse or just feel that they’re ‘off,’ then talk to their doctor, teacher or a mental health specialist.”
- Centers for Disease Control. Children’s mental health: Anxiety and depression in children. Last updated April 19, 2022. Accessed June 27, 2022.
- American Academy of Pediatrics. School avoidance: Tips for concerned parents. Last updated September 5, 2017. Accessed June 27, 2022.
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