Navigating Back-to-School Anxiety: A Guide for Parents at Every Stage
As a child mental health professional, I know that the start of a new school year can be a source of excitement and anticipation. It also triggers anxiety and stress in children. This year, you might be even more concerned about your child's well-being and academic performance due to the pandemic's ongoing challenges, mental health struggles, and “learning loss.”
I wanted to provide some guidance on managing back-to-school anxiety and stress for different age groups – elementary, middle, and high school- because brain development differs for each age group. Especially since we have the brain science now to know why paying attention to a child’s level of development is so important at every age of development for successful development.
Fostering a Smooth Transition in Elementary School,
The developing brain of an elementary school child is highly adaptable, but it's essential to acknowledge that change can still cause stress. Brain research tells us that children at this age are more sensitive to emotional cues from caregivers. As you prepare them for school, offer reassurance and maintain a positive attitude.
Your anxiety will bleed over to them, so managing your emotions is VERY important for them to see and feel. Remember, they learn resilience from seeing others and practicing themselves.
Open Conversations: Initiate conversations about the upcoming school year. Address their concerns and validate their feelings. ALL the feelings don’t dismiss or dissuade them from any feeling. Scary is scary, nervous is nervous; naming it takes the intensity out of it while validating that what they feel is real. Your goal as a parent is to assure them you have got this together and will support them through it.
Routine and Predictability: Establish a daily routine that includes regular sleep schedules, meals, and playtime. Predictability helps ease anxiety. Consistency makes transactions easier. START THIS NOW! Don’t wait till two days before school to get routines going again.
Empowerment through Choice: Give them small choices, like picking out school supplies or planning their outfits. This promotes a sense of control, decreasing the power struggles, so if it is something they can make a choice about, let them go for it. If making choices seems to create stress, let them know you got it and will make sure they have what they need.
Mindfulness and Breathing: Teach simple mindfulness techniques and deep breathing exercises to help manage moments of anxiety. Everyone gets anxious! Having some tools can support independence and improve self-esteem. For specific mindfulness strategies, look here.
Play-Based Coping: Utilize play strategies at home, like drawing or role-playing, to help them express their emotions. Increase your child-led play time; even 10 min a day can increase connection and develop shared time of JOY! Play is the way to improve your connection with your child.
Navigating Social Dynamics In Middle School
Middle schoolers' brains undergo significant changes, producing heightened emotional responses and reactivity. Middle schoolers are a special breed of child! They are in constant flux, causing immense push and pull on our energy as parents! Social interactions become more complex, and friendships are a priority. Parents, you are on the way out regarding value and spending time with. They may worry about fitting in, making friends, and academic expectations. Middle Schoolers need to know you are there when they decide to need you. So please pay attention to those clues when you are wanted, and give it freely.
Validation: Listen actively and validate their emotions. Let them know it's normal to feel anxious about new experiences. Validating doesn’t mean you have to change anything. It is normalizing their life experience. All emotions are accepted.
Empathy and Connection: Share stories from your school experiences to foster a sense of connection. Please encourage them to talk about their friends and peers. Talk about the changes they expect and what they will do if they get overwhelmed. Do proactive problem-solving to ease the anxiety.
Problem-Solving Skills: Teach them problem-solving techniques for social situations and academic challenges. Give them easy outs of social situations by having a key phrase when said or texted, which means “come to my rescue, no questions asked.” Let them know you are there to listen and provide guidance when they ask (don’t fall into lecturing!!!).
Physical Activity: Engage in physical activities together to release stress and boost mood. Make a plan to walk after work or dinner just around the block. It is about fighting inertia and starting the movement together. Some nights, we end up doing 4 laps to finish the conversation. Moving the body releases stress and brings about feel-good neurotransmitters that come with exercise. Tweens will talk when not being looked in the eye.
Social Skills Building: Encourage participation in extracurricular activities to help them develop new friendships and interests. This includes robotics, art classes, gaming groups, and book clubs. Sports for many kids are great; for some, it is finding a different way to be social by doing what they like.
Balancing Academics and Well-Being in High School
Teenagers' brains are still developing, particularly in decision-making, problem-solving, organization, and emotional regulation. High school brings on pressure from academic expectations, extracurriculars, and social life. The most significant stressor for most is identifying what their future brings. Everyone asks- STOP asking; they don’t know.
Be curious about their likes and passions, and hesitate to ask about after-school plans. This puts pressure on many to make stuff up and lie to you and places enormous pressure on them. Let them finish high school. They already missed some years during COVID-19, so encourage them to find their passion, not their career.
Communication: Maintain open lines of communication, but also respect their growing need for independence and privacy. Respect brings about respect. Set limits where they are needed and know that you don't have any control in a short time, so let them practice right now figuring things out on their own.
Time Management: Help them develop effective strategies to balance academics, hobbies, and relaxation. Offer suggestions of what works for you and keep visual calendars around. There are so many apps these days to help with this- spend some time WITH them finding something that works for them in managing their time.
Goal Setting: Guide them in setting realistic academic and personal goals. Celebrate their achievements, no matter how small. Remind them of your expectations, and I will remind you to set realistic expectations of yourself and them. Pressure is the most significant factor for struggling mental health in teens.
Peer Support: Encourage healthy friendships and guide them on handling peer pressure. Be there without lectures or lessons. Listen to them more than you talk to them.
Self-Care: Teach them the importance of self-care practices, such as regular exercise, proper sleep, and mindfulness techniques. Helping them establish healthy habits is, in part, role-modeled from what they see you do. Parents, don’t be a hypocrite when it comes to self-care.
Neuroscience shows stress affects the brain's prefrontal cortex, impacting decision-making and emotional regulation( the part of the brain growing the most right now). Trauma-informed approaches highlight the importance of creating safe, supportive environments that acknowledge past experiences. As parents, understanding these concepts can guide your approach to managing back-to-school anxiety.
Each child is unique and may respond differently to stress. By acknowledging their emotions, fostering open communication, and incorporating play-based techniques, you can help your child successfully navigate back-to-school anxiety and stress.
Lastly, transitioning back to school can be challenging for children of all ages. By considering their developmental stage, offering open communication, and integrating neuroscience and trauma insights, you can effectively provide the support and tools to manage anxiety and stress.
Every child is unique, so tailor your approach to their needs and preferences. Together, we can help our children thrive academically and emotionally in the new school year.
If you find your child needs mental health services, please get in touch with our sister site, Olympia Therapy.
Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2012). The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind. Bantam.
Perry, B. D., & Szalavitz, M. (2007). The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist's Notebook--What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love, and Healing. Basic Books.