With summer coming to a rapid end, I find myself becoming restless and a familiar feeling of unease creeps into my stomach. This is the same unease I feel as a restful vacation draws to an end or on a Sunday night as I plan for the busy work week ahead. Vacations, weekends, summers off – they offer a break from our often-stressful routines and when we are faced with the reality of having to jump back into those routines it is normal to experience worry, anxiety or even dread.
As a therapist, the end of the summer means more calls from parents worried about their children who feel anxious about having to return to school. It has been quite some time since I had to shop for school clothes, supplies and prepare for that first day back; but it’s something I remember very well. What will I wear on the first day? Will the other kids like my hair cut? What if I can’t sit next to my friends? I don’t want to wake up at 6:00am! For kids dealing with academic issues, home stressors or bullying, their worries well exceed those that I can recall. Here are some of the tips I share with both my clients and their parents to best prepare for the school year…
Acknowledge the worries. Parents should be mindful of their responses as their kids voice worries and concerns. It may be easy to dismiss your child’s concern about not getting the teacher they were hoping for home room with “Oh, you’ll be fine” or “I thought Sarah was in that class too, you like Sarah”.
Acknowledge your child’s specific concerns with questions like, “What are you worried might happen since you didn’t get the home room teacher you wanted”. Allowing your child to explore their concern will help them feel heard and supported and offer an opportunity to find solutions.
Inventory strengths and supports. Once a child has been allowed to express what they are worried about and why, parents and families can come up with an inventory of the strengths and supports that are available to the child. Prompt your child by asking what went well last year at school, what teachers were helpful, what subjects were fun or easy, which kids did they feel comfortable around, was there something that the parents or family did that was helpful last year? This list can act as a reminder that there are some positive aspects about school and as a tool for children to look for similar resources in the coming year.
Create a plan. Some kids experience more than the average worry about returning to school and this may manifest in difficulty sleeping, eating, headaches, stomachaches etc. For these kids, creating a plan with the assistance of the school may be necessary. Hoping for the best and ‘waiting to see’ how this year goes is not always the best tactic. With increased attention to both bullying and mental health issues in children and teens, nearly all schools have resources available that can help children feel secure and safe. A child’s plan may include opportunities throughout the day to check-in with a trusted staff member, a safe space they can go to when they are feeling overwhelmed, and educating teachers about the child’s specific needs.
By feeling heard, supported and with a plan in place, the start of the next school year can be an opportunity for new friends, experiences and believe it or not… fun!