7 steps to help your child overcome back-to-school anxiety

Photo:SHUTTERSTOCK
Photo:SHUTTERSTOCK 

While some children look forward to starting the school year, others are racked by anxiety and stress.

Some symptoms of back-to-school anxiety are finding it difficult to fall asleep, feeling sick a lot of the time, complaining of a sore tummy, picking at food, crying easily and aversion to being alone or away from parents.

Some children do not tolerate change well and finding new environments and routines challenging.

"This condition is very common both in children and adults," says Renee Mill, senior clinical psychologist at Anxiety Solutions CBT. "It's why many adults stay in difficult and bad situations; they cannot face making changes to their life."

It can be just as stressful for parents who have anxious children.

Here are Renee's seven steps that parents can follow to help their children overcome back-to-school anxiety:

1. Allow them to feel validated
Even If you find their behaviour exasperating or immature, listen to your child's concerns. Make it safe for them to talk about their fears. Listen without jumping in with explanations, reassurances or put downs.

2. Normalise the fear of change
By saying something like "It is very common for people to be afraid of new situations. Many kids feel sick at the start of a new year at school because so many things will be different to last year."

While validating and understanding their problem will not alleviate the anxiety, it will help them feel more centred and able to expend energy on coping with the problem.

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3. Validate without encouraging avoidance
Normalising and validating does not mean encouraging avoidance. Even though the child feels fear, with anxiety it is best to "feel the fear but do it anyway".

In other words, parents must communicate that no matter how scary it can be, going to school is not optional. Avoidance of feared situations entrenches the fear, acting despite the fear extinguishes it in time.

4. Recognise patterns
Look for triggers of stress and how they have been overcome in the past. For example, if your child was usually upset and clingy going to school or pre-school care in the first few days but ok by the second week, you can remind them of that and suggest strategies that will make them feel better.

Suggest that they focus on finding a friend on the first day or ask the teacher to seat them in the front row in the classroom.

5. Build self-efficacy
Point out your child's strengths. For example, "Do you remember how in kindergarten you introduced yourself to the new boy? That showed courage." Or "Last year I remember that you walked with your teacher even though you didn't want to at first. That shows determination."

By continuing to remind them of their strengths, their self-confidence will grow.

6. Practice the "fire drill method"
This is a very effective and fun tool. In the lead up to a new experience/environment, go through what to expect before it happens. For example, role play walking into the school yard and work out the best place to wait for the school bell.

Plan B - if your child doesn't make a friend on the first day, they can go to the library at lunch time. Plan C - if they don't like their teacher, your child can remember to discuss it with you after school.

7. Breathing and relaxation
These are standard techniques for anxiety. Teach your child to recognise when their breathing speeds up or heart starts to race. Then you can teach them to breathe deliberately and slowly to calm down.

A great method is to inhale slowly and as they exhale to speak the word 'relax'. Doing these 5 times at bed-time and In the morning is a great way to train them. The key to success is practice and repetition.