It’s that time of year again, where parents breathe a sigh of relief as they prepare to free their children from the seemingly endless days of summer. Off they go to school again (sometimes begrudgingly, sometimes excitedly), to make friends, to learn new things and to bust out those shiny new school supplies. While some children seem to have no issue getting back into the swing of things, others may find themselves anxious at the upcoming change.
Even as an adult who doesn’t go to school anymore, I still get nervous butterflies when I walk into the grocery store and get blinded by the giant “BACK TO SCHOOL!!!!” signs and product displays. So many backpacks! So many pencil cases! So much newness!
It’s a tad overwhelming, no?
If it’s overwhelming for grown-ups, we can see how overwhelming it can be for the smaller kids who have to look up to see everything. So, don’t be surprised if you find your child(ren) acting differently this time of year. Some kids take change like it’s no big thing, other kids may not. Your child doesn’t have to have full blown anxiety to experience school jitters, either. Some common symptoms you may see:
- Increased irritability – hellooooo grouchy pants!
- Appetite changes – eating more or not wanting to eat.
- Physical complaints, like tummy aches or head aches.
- Lowered frustration tolerance, which may lead to tantrums, shouting, slamming doors, crying and all that jazz.
- Change in sleeping habits – may get up more often, or have trouble falling asleep.
Now, if any of these symptoms are intense, ongoing and/or causing your child to suffer both at home and outside the home, it’s not a bad idea to talk to a counselor or pediatrician about the symptoms. While most kids experience mild to moderate anxiety off and on throughout their development, it should subside with self-soothing or comfort by the parent. Children with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (only occurring in 3-6% of all children, Seligman & Reichenberg 2007), have persistent, chronic and broad worries that interfere with daily living. Often, self-soothing and parental comfort does not stop the chronic worry in a child with GAD. The good news is that GAD is extremely treatable. For more information about GAD in children and adolescents, see the Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s website, or visit the National Institute of Mental Health’s page on anxiety.
In any case, there are many things you can do with your child – whether they have GAD or not – that can help them learn to cope with situational anxiety, such as going back to school. The following are projects and techniques you can do at home to help your little ones have a smoother transition into school.
Disclaimer: These are best done when your child is NOT having a meltdown. Just like we don’t try to teach kids to swim while they’re drowning, we also don’t try to teach kids while they are in meltdown mode. They aren’t able to listen or learn well in that state. If your child is having a meltdown, try the following:
- Get them to a safe place, where they can’t break anything valuable, hurt themselves or run away. Preferably a place with pillows they can stomp, paper they can tear or scribble on, or a Bop Bag they can punch.
- Sit calmly in the space with them, and regulate your breathing.
- Let them know you are there by gently saying things like “You are so frustrated” or “I see that you’re anxious/angry/sad/etc”.
- Remind them that you’re there when they are ready for a hug.
- If they get violent and/or out of control, you may try a Bear Hug (wrap your arms and legs around them and hold tight until they calm down) or a Burrito Roll (where you have them lie on a blanket and roll them up nice and snug). Sometimes the bodily pressure of these activities can increase a sense of security and help the body relax.
Now, once your kiddo is in a place of lower-anxiety and able to listen, give these a try:
Breathing is something we all take for granted, and often don’t think about. When we get anxious, we often begin breathing more shallowly without realizing it, causing physical symptoms of anxiety to kick in, such as feeling light headed, dizzy or tingly. That’s because your oxygen flow has changed. Breathing is a quick and FREE way to help.
Start by sitting in a soft, quiet place across from your child. Together with them, breathe in through your nose for a count of 5 (you can use your fingers to count along). Hold for 2 seconds, then breathe out for another count of 5. Repeat 4 more times.
Blowing Off Steam
Go outside with a bottle of bubbles. Practice blowing bubbles slowly together. This is a fun way to regulate the breath, and give your kid’s mind something new to focus on.
Many children get anxious or frustrated and don’t have the vocabulary to express themselves, which leads to more frustration. Any game to teach feeling words can help. For Feeling Charades, sit across from your child and cover your face with your hands. While your face is covered, make an emotional face (angry, happy, sad, etc), then put your hands down and have your child guess what you are feeling based on your facial expression. Then hand them the “invisible mask” and let them give it a try. Once they get the hang of it, you can move on towards more advanced feeling words like lonely, excited, nervous, disappointed, etc.
For older kids, you can take this to the next level and act out feelings with your whole body, like a game of charades. Get creative!
Using a butterfly net, bag or other container, walk around the room “catching thoughts” in your net. Once you catch a thought, you pull it out and tell the other person what that thought is. Then you let go! This helps teach kids that thoughts come and go, and they don’t have to hold onto anxious thoughts.
Like a Tree
Go outside with your child and observe the trees. Help them notice that no matter how windy, the trees stay grounded. Pretend that you are both trees by firmly planting your feet on the ground. Raise your arms like branches and let them move in the wind. You may move your arms as wildly as you can, but make sure to keep those roots (aka your feet) planted strong! Tell your child that feelings are like the wind, in that they may blow you around, but if you keep your feet grounded, they’ll eventually go away and you’ll still be a strong tree.
Stress balls are not just for adults! Grab a pack of balloons and some Play-Doh. Decorate the deflated balloons with your kids – draw faces on them, doodle on them, whatever your heart desires. Then hold open the balloon while your child forms Play-Doh “snakes” and fits them inside the balloon. Fill the balloon until it easily fits in your child’s hand. Tie the balloon and voila! Your child has a stress ball they can squeeze when they get anxious or angry.
I hope those help! Remember, school jitters are a normal experience for kids. In addition to teaching your kids coping skills like the ones listed above, be sure to maintain a consistent schedule as much as possible. Consistency creates predictability, and predictability creates security and safety. Kids thrive on it! Even when they complain about it…
Happy Back-to-School, everyone.
Anxiety and Depression Association of America
“Helping Children Cope with Change, Stress and Anxiety: A Photocopiable Activities Book” by Deborah M. Plummer, 2010
National Institute of Mental Health
“Selecting Effective Treatments” by Linda Seligmann and Lourie W. Reichenberg, 2007