We all can remember what the first day of going back to school feels like. While excitement is certainly one of the emotions it can be mixed with anxiety, dread, and even sadness that summer is over. Preparing your child emotionally is as important as shopping for those needed school supplies. A good back to school plan can give your child the confidence they need to manage their back to school jitters and start the year off successfully.
Name Anxiety – By clearly identifying anxiety and calling it by name you give your child a vocabulary to talk openly about fear, worry, and dread.
Sometimes a name like “worry brain” is used in place of the term “anxiety” to help younger children open up about what they are experiencing. One of the goals for managing anxiety is for a child to know the name of the emotion they are experiencing so there is less fear and more confidence in their ability to cope. Here is a good definition of anxiety:
Anxiety is an overestimation of the threat
and an underestimation of my ability to cope
Normalize Anxiety – By helping a child understand that the physical experience and emotional experience of back to school anxiety is perfectly normal we can take some of the “scary” out of anxiety. The analogy of a fire alarm going off even though there is no fire is a great way to explain our body’s alarm system. Helping a child who is experiencing the physical feelings of anxiety understand that just because they feel like they are in danger doesn’t mean they actually are in danger can be such a relief.
By normalizing the experience of anxiety we can help our kids not feel so alone. Remind them that it is normal to feel worried or nervous when going into a new environment and that lots of other kids feel the same way. Sometimes a personal story from you as their parent can be encouraging as long as the story ends with you having success in overcoming anxiety and gaining confidence through the experience.
Navigate Anxiety – As hard as it can be the healthy way to cope with anxiety is to face it. The goal is to help your child become more comfortable with uncertainty, not to keep your child away from all fears. This is a life skill that will serve them well for the rest of their life. They must begin to see themselves a capable of tolerating uncertainty and discomfort.
Lucy is 7 years old and swims at a community pool almost everyday. She sees all the other kids dive off the high dive and wishes she could but she is so afraid. Lucy has everything she needs to dive successfully from the high dive. She is a strong swimmer and there is a lifeguard on duty to help if needed. Yet Lucy sees herself as incapable and she sees the high dive as overwhelming. A few times she has attempted to climb up the ladder and once she stepped on the board but each attempt created more fear and she climbed back down wanting only to feel relief from the anxiety.
Lucy is trapped in a fear cycle. The only way to decrease her anxiety long term is for her to jump off the high dive. Trying and climbing back down the ladder decreases the anxiety temporarily but increases it over time. It is our job as parents to help our children “jump off the high dive” in order for them to experience true relief from anxiety. This is done in a caring, empathetic way through careful attention to helping them develop coping skills so they can be successful in facing their fear.
Breaking the fear cycle can be accomplished by:
• Find out what is scary about a specific fear your child has
• Break down the challenge into smaller steps
• Help your child think more accurately and less negatively about the fear
• Help your child imagine what it would look like to have success over this fear
Neutralize Anxiety – When kids are anxious the questions we ask them are very important. Some questions can increase anxiety while other questions have the ability to neutralize anxiety. In general, it is a good idea to stay away from “why” questions. Below are examples of neutralizing questions. These tend to awaken the thinking part of the brain when the emotional brain or anxiety brain has taken over.
• What is worry brain telling you?
• What do you want to say to worry brain?
• What is the evidence that your worry is true?
• What is the evidence that your worry is not true?
• What would you tell a friend if he or she had this thought?
• Am I confusing a possibility with a probability? It may be possible but is it likely?
• Is this a hassle or a horror?
• If it did happen, what can I do to cope?
Network Anxiety – Over the years I have met some amazing teachers and principals that have walked with students through intense periods of anxiety. I have found them to be empathetic and creative in helping students overcome really difficult situations. Networking with individuals that care for your kids on a regular basis can be part of helping your child manage his or her anxiety. It is also helpful to network with other parents of kids who struggle with anxiety. This can be a lifeline at times as you encourage one another. Remember that as parents it is also important for us to take care of ourselves and manage our own anxiety.
From time to time Alethia will teach workshops that are meant to connect people and give practical solutions to issues we all face. Below is information about our next workshop, called Back To School Jitters. You will not only hear from therapists at Alethia but will also have the opportunity to hear from some great principals and teachers who will give us insight into how you can make this school year as anxiety-free as possible! Hope to see you there!