It’s back to school time, which for many children brings up anxieties and fears. Riding the bus, peer issues, academic performance, and classroom expectations require a lot from our young ones. Trying to get to the bottom of your child’s anxiety can be difficult. Where is the parent’s guide to dealing with your kid’s anxiety, right? Today I’d like to share my perspective on school anxiety, as both a parent and a therapist.

Getting to the Source

As a parent, I’ve been humbled to realize that my own patterns affect my children. We create the “soup” our children swim in, so parents really are the most influential people in a child’s life. The more parents pay attention to their own patterns, the more the child benefits.

Here’s an example from my family: 

My daughter’s first grade year at Maurice Orange City Elementary was off to a great start. She transitioned from homeschooling to public school that year, and she was loving it. But a few weeks in, she started getting stomach aches on school mornings. I asked her how things were going with friends, teachers, etc… Rachel said everything was good. I contacted her AMAZING teacher, Mrs. Bonnecroy, and she gave an insight that surprised me.

“I’m not judging,” she said very kindly, “but Rachel gets here right when the bell rings, so she is always rushed to get her pre-class duties done. Most students arrive a few minutes early to get settled in. I wonder if it would help her to arrive at school a few minutes earlier.” Yikes!! It was MY pattern of arriving at the last minute that was causing Rachel stress. The next day I made sure Rachel arrived early. She didn’t have a stomach ache that morning, or any morning afterwards!

Looking for Patterns

Anxiety in children can show up in many ways. It may manifest as a stomach ache, headache, resistance to going somewhere, crying a lot, or getting angry. A huge part of recognizing anxiety is noticing patterns. 

I encourage parents to become aware of 2 patterns: 

  1. The ways your child responds to life
  2. The ways you respond to your child

For example:

  • Does the child have a stomach ache everyday before school, or just the days they have P.E.?
  • Does the child get a “headache” every time they have a game or public performance or just when they play certain teams?  
  • How do you respond? Do you tell them they don’t have to do it? Do you get anxious? Or do you stay calm?

Sometimes parents will interpret the headache as “faking” in order to get out of an unwanted activity. I encourage parents to resist labeling these episodes as faking or trying to get out of something. Many times children are not able to process the thoughts or feelings causing their anxiety, but their bodies are revealing the anxiety.

So here are my 4 tips to help your child during anxious times: 

1. Get One-on-One Time 

One of the best tools parents have in calming their children is emotional closeness. Taking time to be with your child is one of the best ways to help your child feel more secure. You can spend time talking about the thing they don’t want to do, but that may not be as helpful as just spending time snuggling at night before bed. I have had parents report amazing changes in their child’s behavior simply by spending 10-15 minutes together reading before bedtime. 

2. Affirm Your Child

One of the great privileges of parenting is building a scaffolding of confidence in your child. By delighting in your children, telling them how much you like them, and affirming their strengths, you can help them gain confidence to face the challenges in their world.

3. Ask Questions

Spending quality time with your children and delighting in them are two big ways to help lessen their anxiety. Sometimes, however, you do need to talk about what is bothering them. How do you talk about it? Here are some ideas…

Let’s use riding the bus as an example — it is a stressor for a lot of kids. Ask your child questions such as:

  • What is it like for you when you think about riding the bus?
  • How does your body feel when you ride the bus?
  • When do you feel strong?
  • What makes you feel happy?

Then try an exercise like this, saying to your child, “Pretend you are getting on the bus. I want you to imagine yourself as strong. Imagine you are strong enough to ride the bus to school even though you don’t want to. We all go through times that we are scared to do things, but we can find ways to do those things anyway.”

4. Make a List

Lastly, as you pay attention to these patterns and behaviors, write down your observations.

  • What do you do when your child feels anxious? 
  • What is a new choice you could make that affirms their strength and intelligence?
  • What are the physical signs that signal your child is anxious? 
  • How can you affirm them and teach them skills to help them be strong?

I hope this gives you some new tools as you interact with your child and create a more peaceful home life during the transition back to school.

~ Donna Durham, MMFT

Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash