The end of summer comes with a mixed bag of emotions. Happy to see our kids head back to school to get some structure and rhythm to their days. Ecstatic siblings get a break from one another and the bickering has a natural hiatus. Sad the fun is over. Dreading no more sleeping in. Reluctance to go back to the rigid schedule. Hopeful this year will be good for them as they learn, grow, and connect with others. For some families, anxiety is also an emotion in the bag. For some families, anxiety takes up the whole bag!
Some children have gotten a healthy dose of anxiety mixed into their DNA so they tend to lean that way. Other children have had experiences causing anxiety. Some children have a bit of both.
No matter how anxiety developed, there is one major Don’t when it comes to handling back to school anxiety:
#1 DO NOT LET YOUR CHILD STAY HOME FROM SCHOOL! I know, I know. You think I am yelling at you with all those capital letters in your face. If you can imagine we are talking in person, I am looking at you directly in the eyes, with a slightly serious head tilt, and assertively telling you to not let you child stay home from school. Then I am going to gently, kindly, and directly discuss with you why this statement is my #1 Don’t.
Parents often let their kids stay home with the best of intentions. Promises get made about how they will go the next day. I am telling you now, letting your child avoid what they are fearing is only feeding the anxiety monster more. It creates anxiety by giving it more time to develop and get bigger and bigger. It may appear the anxiety quiets down when you give your child the thumbs up to stay home, but this ease is temporary. If you are planning on them going to school tomorrow, the one day buffer put a bandaid on a broken leg. As we all know, bandaids don’t fix broken legs.
Anxiety has a way of making people believe something really bad is going to happen. It tricks our brains into creating fantastic stories. Like last night when I feared for my life because I was home alone for the night….Here I am this morning, alive and well creating this post.
Yes bad things do happen at school. Kids can be cruel, teachers move too fast on a lesson, there is no room at the lunch table, being the last one picked, getting blamed for something you didn’t do. Those things, among others, can make school feel terrible.
Let’s talk about a few ways to support an anxious child who doesn’t want to go to school.
- Assess what is really going on. Are they really in danger? Is there a peer who is hitting them with sticks when the yard duty isn’t looking? Is there someone on social media who has threatened to beat them up after school when they walk home? Is someone threatening to post inappropriate pictures and say it was them
If we are going to help our child, we need to know what is really happening. Sometimes anxiety is warranted. Like if someone via social media this summer told a girl she better watch it or she is going to smash her face in if she sees her at school. Or if last year a child was a target of someone’s constant teasing, then we can see how anxiety is present.
Your job is to learn the most you can about what actually has happened. See if your child will show you the messages sent to her. Find out how many times this has happened, who was involved, and all the details you can so you can move onto how to help them navigate the situation.
2. If the anxiety is due to something truly threatening their safety, reach out for help. Talk to the teacher, school counselor, and/or administrators to help get the problem solved at school early before it has time to grow this year. Giving your child a person to connect with over this situation can help them feel supported at school.
A second option would be to talk with the other parent of the child involved. Whatever you do, make sure to come across in a respectful way. These calls can go well or terrible. Sometimes parents can become quite defensive. If you get a call like this, do your best to hear all the information being presented and communicate back in a respectful way.
A third option is to develop a plan with your child on how to handle the situation, but if the situation truly involves their safety, we don’t want to put off keeping them safe in the spirit of keeping their cool. If it feels like a situation you/your child want to try and manage on your own for a bit, role play what to say and do given the situation. Discuss safe places to be and safe people to be with. Continue to assess how the days go and if things are escalating, it may be time to go with the first two options above.
A fourth option: If none of this works, it may be worthwhile to look at whether this school is a good fit for your child. I would encourage you to talk to the school first. Find out if the school is willing to work with you.
I believe every child has a right to feel safe at school. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always come easy for every child. We need to help our children have access to this inherent right. Going it alone or asking for help, it is important we work to address these issues with and for our children.
- In true anxiety fashion, if the worry is about something that hasn’t ever happened, it is time to help your child move into the present moment. So often anxiety helps us write a horrible story in our head that probably isn’t going to take place. We can bring our child into the present moment by looking around to what is happening right now versus what we imagine is going to happen into the future. Be there with them in the here and now by coaching them on taking some deep breaths. Have them tune into your voice and just breathe. There are also some pretty amazing apps and kids/teen meditations out there if you need some help. You tube is filled with them.
A second tool is to help your child write a story of infinite possibilities using the facts. Example: The fact is I can go into the office and eat lunch if I don’t find someone to sit with. The fact is I can ask Kelly to eat lunch with me; she is nice to everyone. The fact is I can bring my book out to lunch and read today. The fact is I don’t know what today will look like but I am open to having a good day and I am not going to let lunch time bring me down.
I have a ton of other tools in my bag to support kids with anxiety, too much for a blog. Please feel free to reach out to me to talk more. Other great resources include the websites Anxiety BC and Worry Wise Kids.
Wishing each family and child a great start to the school year!