6 Tips for Helping Your Child with Anxiety Navigate Back to School
It’s that time of year again parents…time to send your kids back to school! The signs are plentiful. Slightly cooler temps in the morning. School supplies and clothing ads everywhere you look. And perhaps the rise of anxiety symptoms in your child?
For kids with anxiety, leaving the carefree days of summer and returning to the classroom can be a stressful time. They anticipate longer, more tiring days, the burden of homework and tests, and the social relationships they must now navigate again. It’s no wonder that anxiety begins to build up the closer they get to the first day of school.
The good news is that there are things you can do to make the transition easier. Here are 6 tips for helping your anxious child navigate back to school.
Talk to Your Child About What to Expect
If your child is feeling anxious about the school year, be sure to talk it out ahead of time. Prepare your child in advance for situations that make them feel worried or fearful. Share what you know in a clear and concise way so your child feels like they have a handle on what might or might not happen. Having some idea of what to expect gives kids a sense of control over the situation. Role playing and practicing things they can do or say are both very helpful.
Knowing what to expect at school is important but so is at home. Kids thrive on structure and routine. Stick to a routine for mornings and evenings. Have your child wake up and go to bed at the same time every day. Is there a nightly routine that your child enjoys? Make sure to give them your time and attention at bedtime to encourage, listen and make them feel safe.
Also important is the reminder to your child that you do not expect them to be like everyone else. Everyone learns differently and has a wide variety of skills, talents, and strengths. Comparing themselves to others is not helpful. Have them focus their energy instead on achieving attainable goals like being a good friend, doing their best in school, and enjoying activities and hobbies.
Teach Your Child How to Slow Their Breathing
We know that fear can often make our bodies go into panic mode so it’s important to slow down the adrenaline rush by breathing deeply.
When children are anxious, they tend to take rapid shallow breaths from the chest. Taking slower, deeper breaths from the abdomen sends a signal to their brain that they are safe and can relax.
There are a number of different ways to calm your breath. You can do a Google search and find half a dozen techniques. The important thing is that you help your child bring attention to their breath in a nonjudgmental way. Have them focus on what their breath feels like at the moment. And if they find their thoughts returning to the upcoming test or track meet, simply teach them to gently let go of those thoughts and return to an awareness of their breath.
Next, show them how to inhale a little deeper, pausing at the top of the breath, and then exhaling even slower than the inhale. By mindfully focusing on their breathing, their mind will start to relax. Their body will also begin to calm which helps the blood flow back into their brain resulting in better focus.
Older children may be able to follow you as you show them slow breathing exercises. For younger children, there are some playful ways to get them to slow down and control their breathing.
You can have them blow bubbles, blow into a pinwheel, pretend your fingers are birthday candles and have them slowly blow them out, teach them to whistle or simply see if they can hold their breath for three seconds as if they were swimming.
All of these techniques slow down the “fight or flight” response so your child can regain their sense of calm.
Continually Remind Your Child of their Strengths, Resilience and Resources
When you see your child doing things successfully, acknowledge it, no matter how small. Praise them and be specific. “Great job staying focused and finishing your homework assignment. Way to go!” You want to help grow your child’s confidence so they understand they can tackle whatever challenges come their way. Helping your child see that they can do hard things is critical in instilling resilience and confidence.
Just be mindful to praise their efforts and not their achievements. The way we praise our kids can affect their mindset and their desire to take on challenges and persevere. Instead of giving “person praise” like, “You’re so smart,” or “You’re so creative,” try to give “process praise.” Focus on your child’s effort, as in, “I can tell you’ve been working really hard.”
You can also give specific praise, like, “You really understand fractions!” Praising your child in this way can help them develop a growth mindset, believing that their abilities will grow through hard work and challenges.
Children who know how to tackle challenges head-on will grow to be resilient. These children can take failures and disappointment in stride and figure out next steps. They are also less likely to be anxious because they’re confident they have what it takes to succeed.
Teach Your Child to Problem-Solve
Along the same lines, it’s important that you teach your child to effectively solve problems. When your child comes to you with a problem, help them brainstorm ways to address the challenge.
For example, if your child is nervous about a math test, talk through specific solutions like developing a study schedule, finding effective study strategies, and managing time. As you brainstorm, help your child consider what the results might be for each solution they propose.
Let your child make mistakes! When your child does a hurried, poor job on a school project, you may feel a strong urge to help them improve or fix it. If you’re busy at work and your child calls to say they left their homework on the table, you may want to rush to the rescue. Don’t.
As uncomfortable as it is to let our children make mistakes, this is one way that kids develop resiliency. If your child never makes mistakes, they’ll never learn how to fix their errors or make better decisions in the future.
Resiliency isn’t something that’s automatically handed down to kids; it’s something that must be instilled and molded over time. Planting these seeds now will set your child up for success and less anxiety in the future.
Encourage Emotional Intelligence and Social Interactions
Pay close attention to how your child is feeling emotionally. Teach them how to name their feelings (i.e. hurt, angry, sad) and express them appropriately. Try to incorporate emotional check-ins into your daily schedule to gauge how they’re feeling in general. Check-ins can be formal and structured (like at dinnertime) or informal and on the run (while driving to soccer practice). The important thing is to help your child identify, reflect on and share their emotions.
Encourage your child to get together often with friends. Social children who are well connected to others feel a sense of support and resilience. Authentic relationships provide a safe space and trusted people to talk to about their feelings. Help socialize your child as early as possible so they can form deep connections on their own as they grow.
If your child struggles in this area, trying role playing what to say when meeting new people. Or if need be, enroll them in a social skills class to gain confidence. Then look for opportunities to reinforce them. It’s perfectly OK to stretch your child beyond their comfort zone a bit. We all need to learn how to talk to people so we can ask for what we need and want. This skill helps kids grow in their self-awareness and assertiveness and is especially important for kids who are socially anxious. Practice creates mastery which increases confidence and self-esteem.
Spend Fun Time Together as a Family
Research suggests that humor can significantly reduce anxiety. And the majority of kids need some fun after a long week of school, especially as they transition into a new school year. Humor has a way of distracting, relaxing muscles and releasing endorphins that combat stress and anxiety. Try silly knock-knock jokes or word games like “I went on a picnic”. A quick internet search will result in a ton of corny jokes that your child will most likely love. Print some out and have them on hand.
One-on-one time is also important. Take your son out for a milkshake or schedule a manicure date with your daughter. Spend time with your child without giving advice. Just listen. Remind them of their strengths, talents, skills, and gifts. Communicate that they can tackle the challenges that come their way. Really believe in them and watch their self-esteem rise.
Physical exercise is critical as well in combating anxiety. It not only releases built-up tension in your muscles, but it also releases “feel-good” endorphins that will help put your child in a better frame of mind. Exercise is an exceptional way to supercharge their mood and help them perform better.
So go for a family run, throw a ball around, walk the dog, rollerblade, jump on the trampoline and get some of that nervous energy out. You can also turn a slow walk into a practice in relaxation by asking your child to connect to their five senses. Have them simply count five things they can see, four things they can hear, three things they can touch, and two things they can smell. It’s an exercise in moving and noticing.
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