For many kids, the start of the new school year is exciting. However, it also causes a spike in anxiety. Even kids who are usually easy-going get butterflies, and kids who are prone to anxiety get more clingy and nervous. Parents also feel the pain. Leaving a crying child at preschool is difficult for parents. Having to talk a panicked first grader onto the bus or out of the car at school can be a real test of your diplomatic skills.
If your child is having a hard time separating from you, it may be because they are experiencing anxiety. This is especially true during times of stress or transition, such as starting a new school. According to Rachel Busman, PsyD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in anxiety, these changes can be very stressful for children. If your child has lost a friend or has a different teacher this year, this may also be causing them anxiety.
The goal for parents is to not make the situation worse by being supportive without exacerbating your child’s worries.
1. Accept that all feelings are normal and valid
Although some children and youth will be excited to return to school and see their friends and teachers again, others may feel jittery or nervous. This is normal.
Some kids may feel anxious about returning to school and the social expectations that come with it. They may be worried about adjusting to a new schedule and routine.
Some students may be worried about returning to school while there are still cases of COVID-19 occurring and the news is still a part of daily life.
You should talk to your child or teenager to see how they are feeling about going back to school. It is okay if they have different emotions and it is good to help them label those emotions. You should listen to them and try to understand their point of view.
It is important to be aware that your child’s emotions may change day to day or as they settle into school. Keep communication lines open by continuing to listen to them without judgement whenever they want to share what they are thinking. This will help you to understand them better and lets them know that you are there for them. It is important to validate their feelings, even if you do not feel the same way or agree with the behaviours that are associated with those emotions.
2. Get physically ready for the change in routine
And finally, create a flexible daily routine that includes some down time, some physical activity and some time for homework Begin by returning to healthy habits that promote physical and mental wellness. A few weeks before school starts, start reigning in those late bedtimes. Every three to five days, move bedtime 30 minutes earlier until your child is getting the recommended sleep for their age, based on when they’ll need to wake up on school days. At least 30 minutes before bedtime, avoid screens. Create a flexible daily routine that includes some down time, some physical activity and some time for homework.
It is beneficial for children to engage in physical activity for at least 60 minutes every day. This helps to reduce stress, improve sleep, and prepare kids for learning and dealing with difficulties.
It is important to schedule any required immunizations, annual check-ups or sports physicals now. It is also important to stay on top of preventive health visits and to schedule those appointments before life gets even busier.
Begin preparing healthy lunches and snacks for your child to take to school. Ask them what kind of fruits and vegetables they would like to have, and make a list together. Find a water bottle they can take with them to help them drink enough water during the day. Plan out who will be responsible for making dinner on school nights, and try to cook together as often as possible. This will give you a chance to catch up with them and see how their year is going.
Now is a good time to set up a family calendar, a backpack location, or a homework station to help make the initial weeks less stressful.
3. Foster relationships that build resilience
Extra time spent with children and teenagers will help build their resilience by making them feel safe and secure. There is no need to have an agenda for this time, just being present will provide opportunities to talk about hopes and fears and show them that they are loved.virtual
If your school or community is holding back-to-school playground dates or events, try to attend so you can talk to other parents and get to know your community. The feeling of “we’re all in this together” can help boost your child’s confidence.
4. Prepare for bumpy patches by knowing ways to cope
There may be days during which your child struggles more than usual. Prepare for these moments by planning ahead and helping your child see that they have the ability to deal with the emotions that they may feel. Use a coping card to assist your child in thinking about what might be difficult about school, how they’ll know if they’re experiencing challenges, and what they can do to cope and feel better.
If your child is feeling anxious about school or any other situation, you can help them by using the coping card. This will help them to deal with their feelings in a healthy way, instead of avoiding things that trigger their anxiety. It’s important to remember that the best way to cope with anxiety is to face it head on. So, if your child is worried about starting school, you can help them by practicing situations that may cause them anxiety, like ordering from the drive-through.
At the beginning of the school year, it can be helpful for parents to fill out a questionnaire that the teacher sends home. This can give the teacher important information about the student, such as how to best help them learn and what to do if social issues come up. It can also be a good way for parents to learn about how the teacher likes to communicate.
5. Know mental health warning signs and what to do in a crisis
A large proportion of children experience emotional difficulties, with one in five suffering from a mental health problem that requires treatment. Mental health problems can manifest in a number of ways, including changes in thinking, emotions and behavior. While there are many warning signs, some of the more common ones include feeling sad or withdrawn for extended periods, severe mood swings, changes in eating or sleeping habits, or sudden, unexplained fear. If your child is displaying any of these symptoms, it is important to contact their doctor and be specific about the behaviors you have observed. Additional resources and support can be found on our mental health resource hub, coping and COVID page, and the resources below. Getting the right help will allow your child to improve their mental health.
There are some signs that a child may be in danger of harming themselves. If your child starts giving away favorite possessions, talking about death, saying goodbye to friends, or stops enjoying favorite activities, ask if they are thinking about suicide. These behaviors may be warning signs that your child is considering harming themselves. Stay calm if they say they are thinking about suicide and:
- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for help: 1-800-273-8255.
- Reduce the risk of suicide by removing pills and firearms from your home. If you can’t remove them, place them in a safe, lockbox or other secure places.
- If they are in immediate danger of harming themselves, don’t leave them alone. Take your child to the closest Emergency Department (ED). If you cannot safely transport your child, please call 911. Tell them you have a mental health emergency and need your child taken to the ED. You can also use your county crisis line for help with problem-solving.
6. Reduce your family’s risk of getting COVID-19 and provide reassurance
You can help reduce your child’s anxiety about getting sick by continuing to follow the prevention recommendations from your local health department and the CDC. The best way to protect your family is to make sure everyone who is eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine gets vaccinated. Stay up to date on the changing mask recommendations. With new variants of the virus circulating, the guidance on masks may change. Be on the lookout for COVID-19 symptoms and know what to do if someone in your family has symptoms.
Make sure your child knows that you, your family, school, and community are taking steps to stay healthy amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Be honest with them if you don’t have all the answers to their questions, and be transparent if new information arises that changes what you know.
If your child is frequently asking for reassurance about health-related issues, our coping and COVID resources can help you find the best way to respond. Parents repeating reassurance can actually hinder a child’s ability to develop independence in their thinking.
If you are struggling to help your child through tough times, it is okay to seek outside support. You may be experiencing intense emotions yourself that are making it difficult to follow the tips discussed here, and that is okay. It is important to name and validate your feelings, face your fears, and get help if you need it. These tips can be applied to adults as well as children.
7. Give yourself, your child, and others grace
This past year and a half have been tough for a lot of people in a lot of different ways. If you have a child who is going back to school, it’s probably going to be a big transition for all of you. Your child may have more anxiety than usual, and you might feel more nervous about sending them to school this year. Teachers and other school staff are also going to be adjusting. So it’s important to try to approach the year assuming that everyone is doing their best. That means taking care of yourself, supporting your child, and getting help from other people if you need it.
The Parent Trust for Washington Children Family Help Line is a resource that parents, caregivers and anyone who has an interest or questions about a child in their community can use to get help. The help line is a toll-free number from anywhere in Washington State that connects callers with parent coaches who can provide supportive listening, parenting information, stress reduction and resources.
8. Give praise and celebrate wins, big and small!
Tell your child what you like about their behavior specifically to encourage more of that behavior in the future. For example, if you want them to be more patient, say something like, “I really liked how patient you were when we had to wait to talk to your teacher today.” This will let them know that their patience is something you value and that you’d like to see more of it in the future.
A pat on the back or a “good job” can go a long way in encouraging the behavior you desire.
As you go through the year, pay attention to moments when your child does something brave. Notice and celebrate when things are going well for them, like when they start the new year. Also, make sure to celebrate your own hard work as a caregiver! Things like a smooth drop-off, doing well on an assignment, or getting first chair in band are all worth cheering for!
Remember that it is okay if you and your child are feeling anxious. This is expected, especially during times like this. Anxiety will not hurt you. The most helpful thing that you can do is to stay in the moment and be mindful. You should also celebrate your successes.
7. Arrange for a hand-off
If you think your child will be hesitant to separate from you, it will be very helpful to have someone else ready and willing to engage them when you arrive. Dr. Busman notes that the teacher may be too overwhelmed to pay special attention to your child, but there may be someone else in the class, like a buddy, who can help ease the transition. Alternatively, you could ask an aide, the nurse, or the school psychologist to plan for a smooth handoff.
— while also modeling how to take on a daunting task by breaking it into smaller, manageable chunks. The author is suggesting that instead of talking about their anxiety with your child, you should involve them in an activity. A good way to do this is to ask for their help with something that may seem daunting, like breaking it into smaller tasks.
According to Dr. Busman, giving the child a role is transparent. The child is not pretending that the parents are not leaving, but the child is helping the parents get involved in the classroom and be part of the community. The child is pleasing the adults and wants to be part of the activity, which can help take their minds off anxiety.
8. When separation problems persist
It’s tough for any parent to leave their child at school when they are crying or whining, but most kids are pretty resilient, according to Dr. Busman. They don’t want to underestimate kids’ ability to cope and most of them recover quickly once their parents leave.
If your child’s teacher reports that they are having a good day and are participating in activities enthusiastically, the best way to help them get more confident about separating from you is to not worry too much about their complaints.
Dr. Busman says that ignoring a child’s whining or reluctance is not being a bad parent, and that it will actually help the child move beyond it if you give more attention to things that you want to see them do.
You should give specific praise for brave behavior in order to encourage them. For example, tell them that you will be back to get them and say things like, “Great job coming to preschool today. When I pick you up I hope you’ll tell me something fun you did.” This will let them know that their actions are noticed and appreciated.
According to Dr. Busman, how adults interact and react is very important. He suggests that adults should ignore bad behavior a little bit, pay attention to good behavior a little bit, and encourage good behavior a lot.
. If children continue to exhibit severe separation anxiety and fears that something bad will happen to their parents which interfere with their ability to function in school, they should be evaluated by a mental health professional.