The Back to School Guide for Anxious Kids

Coral Gables Counseling Center - Wednesday, August 14, 2019
By Dr. Anne Rothenberg, Psy.D, contributor

No matter how long I’ve been out of school, I will always associate the month of September with the beginning of a new year. With that comes a sense of renewal and a boost of anxious optimism, as though I’ve been handed a blank slate. Sounds awesome, right?

As a kid, I was always ready to start school by the first week of August. I believed that the right mechanical pencils and Lisa Frank folders would magically transform the disorganized and anxious kid that I was, to the perfect A+ student that everyone wanted to be friends with. Shockingly, that never worked. As it turns out, no amount of neon dolphins or rainbow kittens could cure my ADHD or turn me into the kid that got picked first for a kickball team. Luckily, I found other ways to compensate for my inattentiveness and social awkwardness (most of the time, but that’s another story).

As a child psychologist, I see my young patients and their families struggle with the same mix of optimism and dread as September approaches. Below are some tips I have compiled over the years to address kids’ anxieties, manage their expectations, and set them up for academic and social success.

Mom and Dad, Check Yourself First

Before intervening in any way, I always encourage parents to assess their own fears first. It’s hard to feel like you’re sending your precious baby to the wolves, but your child is often much more resilient than you think. With this in mind, be careful not to implant anxiety where it doesn’t exist. For example, don’t say this: “are you nervous about taking algebra this year? I hated math so much, I really sucked at it.” Anxiety can be contagious so be sure you’re communicating the message to your child that you believe they can and will be successful and that they have the support and tools to manage obstacles when (not if) they arise.

Keep in mind that many of the struggles children encounter in school are vital lessons in social skills such as advocating for themselves and managing set-backs. You can’t, nor should you, shield them from the small indignities of childhood. Resist the urge to act out of your own emotions. If your son says he didn’t make the basketball team, try to keep your desire to light the coach’s house on fire internal. The best you can do is tolerate your child’s anxiety and disappointment with presence and empathy.

Establish Academic Support Before Your Child is in Crisis

If your child has struggled academically in the past, or even if they’re entering a new school or taking on a new subject, setting up extra academic support is never a bad idea. There is a false notion that tutoring is just for those struggling in a subject. It is far better to get the support in the beginning of the year to set up good foundational knowledge and study skills than to wait until your child is failing or has a midterm coming up.

Seeing a D or an F letter grade on a paper can be extremely humiliating to a child and will chip away at their desire to exert effort, or possibly lead to acting out. Many kids would rather be seen as the bad kid than the dumb kid. Getting in front of this possibility can keep your child motivated and manage their frustration. Practically speaking, it will be much easier to find academic tutors or spots in a study center during the early weeks of school as opposed to a few months into the semester.

Address Changing Friendships

This is a tricky topic especially since I already told parents not to introduce their own anxiety to their kids. But I know many children are anxious about reuniting with classmates after a whole summer apart. Many children, particularly when entering middle school or high school, spend the summer experimenting with new personalities and tinkering their appearances. We all know the kid who goes to art camp and comes back with purple hair and has zero time for the jocks on his soccer team. While this is a normal part of development, such changes are disorienting and upsetting for a child. It may be helpful to normalize this experience by sharing some of your own stories with humor, and pointing out that changes in friendships are to be expected and that relationships and new identities tend to settle into place by October.

Many kids intuitively anticipate and arm themselves for the first day. Throughout my experience working in schools, I have observed kids arriving for the first day in herds (protection in numbers?) If your child doesn’t intuitively know to do this, or is new to the school, try to find one person they can meet before school starts or a buddy who can show them around on the first day. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your school ahead of time. Many school psychologists or guidance counselors will be able to help a new or anxious child find their footing during the first week. This leads me to my final point.

Empower Your Child to Seek Help

While you are your child’s greatest advocate, you should also give them the tools to seek help in school. Before your child enters school, identify people who can be of help to them. Many schools employ psychologists, nurses, guidance counselors, and peer leaders. Make sure your student knows who these people are, where they can find them, and the best way to access them should they have a problem. It’s a good idea to practice with your child what he or she might say. If your child has a learning disability or a mental health issue, this is especially important that they learn to advocate for themselves and ask for what they need. These behaviors give your anxious child a positive identification with his school and the staff and further integrate him into the school community.

Final Thoughts

Finally, none of these tips are aimed at removing the social awkwardness, disappointment or challenges associated with childhood. For better or worse these gauntlets are the necessary work of childhood. A parent’s goal should be to help our kids surf the ups and downs of childhood with the resilience to stand after they’ve been knocked down. If you feel like your child’s anxiety persists beyond the first few weeks of school or they begin to find ways to avoid school altogether, it may be time to seek out a therapist to develop a more in depth treatment plan.