To many, I present as a calm, composed individual. There are times when I can be a bundle of nerves. I’ve been through child birth six times and two combat deployments as an army wife. Yet, there are two things that send me into a full-blown panic attack–the sound of the dentist’s drill and heights. So when one of our daughter’s convinced me to jump attached to a tandem instructor out of an airplane with her, I panicked. I did it anyway and held my breath for the first 5,000 feet of the free fall. It’s the unknown that makes me anxious. Will it hurt THIS time? Will the parachute fail?
Not everyone reacts to stress-inducing situations the way I do. Not everyone reacts to the same triggers.
For many kids, school can be an anxiety-producing trigger. In preschool and early elementary, separation anxiety can create stress and worry for kids. For older kids, it’s the fear of not making friends and fear of failure that can induce worry and anxiety.
A little anxiety isn’t a bad thing. Adrenalin, the hormone our body produces during a “fight/flight” situation can be quite helpful. It helps with focus and sustained concentration during exams, athletic events, or school performances. With too much adrenalin, physical symptoms such as stomachaches, headaches, heart palpitations, and sleeplessness can result. If your child has back-to-school anxiety caused by separation anxiety or fear of failure, there are things a parent can do, according to psychologist and professor at UConn, Golda Ginsburg.
Create some familiarity. If your child is switching schools, take her to orientations where she can meet her teachers. If you can, walk her around the new school. Show her the classrooms, the lunchrooms, bathrooms, and any other places she might use as a student.
Set up social networks. If your child has friends attending the new school, set up dates with the friends so your child will know someone on the first day. Ask your child’s friends to talk about the school, their likes, about the teachers, even the mundane and annoying.
Prepare early and buy school supplies. A few weeks before school, make a list with your child’s needs and wants for school. Have her choose one comfort item that helps her feel more at ease when she’s away from home. If the new school has a uniform, order it early and buy school shoes your child LOVES. But, remind her the shoes are for school and she can only wear them on the first day.
Show her the list of school activities. Talk about the clubs and activities available at the new school. Take her to the baton twirling competition and introduce her to the coach. Take her to a theatre production and show her all the special things she can do as a student.
Practice trial run-throughs. At least a week before the first day, do a run-through. Get your child used to the school routine. During the run-through, have her lay out an outfit and pack her NEW backpack for the next day. In the morning, wake her up as you would on a normal school day. If she “brown bags” it, post a special lunchbox menu on the refrigerator.
Create a homework environment. If you child has a fear of failure, create a designated area and time where you want your child to do her homework. Some children with executive functioning issues do better if they with homework cues such as a set time and place.Be sure to stock your home with supplies–markers, construction paper, tri-fold boards, rulers, index cards, etc. so your child has what she needs to complete homework and projects.
What happens if the anxiety doesn’t pass months into the school year? If the anxiety persists or if your child refuses to go to school, it might be wise to seek a professional opinion. An endless sense of dread or worry not linked to a specific event could be symptomatic of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). According to Boston Childrens’ Hospital, a licensed therapist can teach your child effective coping mechanisms in anxiety-producing settings such as school.
With a little planning, you can do much to avoid anxiety-producing pitfalls and you can create an environment of consistency and support.