Back to school already? I really can’t believe that summer is almost over and that it is time to have this conversation. Here in Tennessee, many schools start back NEXT WEEK. Where you are, you might have another few weeks, but it’s coming up and soon.
The main topic of conversation in my office over the past couple of weeks from kids of all ages is anxiety about going back to school. Now, as a parent, you probably don’t think that your child is really having anxiety about going back to school. In fact, research repeatedly shows that most parents underestimate how anxious their children are in general and overestimate how optimistic they are.
Top Back to School Worries
In my office, the most common topics that children talk about when it comes to back to school worries include:
- Not liking their teacher (or not getting the teacher they want)
- Not having friends in their class (or worse, having a kid that have bullied them before in their class)
- Getting lost
- Not being able to get from one class to another on time
- Locker troubles of any kind
- Fear about the amount of homework or the increased difficulty of homework
- More random worries like throwing up in front of the whole class or having something embarrassing happen
Has your child talked about any of those worries when it comes to returning to school next month? I know you want to be helpful in your response. Unfortunately, most of the typical responses I hear from parents are actually not helpful at all.
WHAT NOT TO SAY
- It doesn’t matter who your teacher is. Just be nice.
- You go to school to learn, not to make friends.
- How can you get lost? The school is not that big.
- Just don’t spend too much time talking to your friends and you’ll have plenty of time to get to class.
- Using a locker is easy.
- You can handle the homework. You’re really smart.
- That’s not going to happen.
- Don’t worry. Everything will be fine.
Recently, I saw this meme and I think it applies here:
The same is true for worry. You will never get a child to stop worrying about something by telling them “Don’t Worry.”
What NOT to do About Back To School Worries:
What’s wrong with telling your child how smart they are? Or telling them not to worry? Well, typical “bad” responses to children’s worries fall into one of at least 3 categories:
You response is DISMISSIVE:
When you tell a person that they should not have the feeling that they are having, it is not helpful. Don’t worry, don’t be so mad, don’t cry about that are all examples of dismissive statements. They don’t work. In fact, it will more than likely INCREASE the intensity of that feeling because now your child is going to try to PROVE TO YOU that the feeling is valid.
Sometimes what you are saying is UNTRUE:
It is simply untrue that “everything will be okay.” Even very young children understand that this is a platitude designed to make people feel better, but it doesn’t work because it is not accurate. One of the standard therapy questions is “Is it TRUE and is it HELPFUL?” Be careful about over-promising or using these far-reaching words because they can easily backfire on you.
Parents rush to help with PROBLEM SOLVING:
The one that feels to parents like the most helpful is actually the worst of all. By jumping in and solving the problem that your child is worried about, a few messages are sent. One is that your child is not capable of solving problems on their own which leads to even greater anxiety in the future. The second is that your “solution” may fail. And if it does, then now you become the target of any anger, frustration, or embarrassment.
What You CAN Say To Help with Back to School Worries
# 1 – Acknowledge the Feeling
Dr. Dan Siegel (author of The Whole Brain Child, No Drama Discipline and other great books about parenting) has an expression
Name it to tame it“
What that means is that when you validate how your child is feeling by naming that emotion in the moment, it actually DECREASES the intensity of the feeling. Simply saying, “you are really worried that you won’t like you teacher” helps build connection between you and your child and let’s them know that you can understand their point of view.
# 2 – Get curious
One of the most helpful phrases that you can totally steal from me is
You might say, “I wonder if anyone else has had this problem or I wonder how the school has handled locker problems in the past.”
What usually happens is that your child will start talking about information that they already have. They will say that they have talked to a friend about it or that the teachers addressed it during orientation. This helps activate their own capacity to talk through the worry and sometimes that is enough.
# 3 – Play the ‘What If’ Game
This one works especially well with the “I wonder” phrase. You might say, “I wonder what a friend of yours would do if that happened.” Taking it into a more hypothetical situation about someone else helps your child activate their own problem solving skills.
Usually, they can start coming up with examples of people that they could go to for help (a friend, a teacher, etc). If they have trouble here, your job is to focus on the helpers.
Who might your friend ask for help if that happened?
# 4 – Concrete Coping Skills
Finally, you can highlight concrete coping skills that your child has OR teach them some new ones.
Some helpful coping skills include:
- Taking 3 deep breaths (it really does work)
- Grounding exercises (focus on something that you can see, then something you can hear, then something you can touch)
- Mindfulness Activities: notice where in the body the feeling comes up and describe it. Then talk about other more positive feelings and what happens to your body when you think about or focus on them.
- Having a sensory item for their hands (if you are anti-fidget spinners, just know that they came from helpful therapuetic beginnings). It might be a stone, a silky scarf, or a stretchy bracelet, but something to keep your hands busy in the moment does in fact reduce anxiety. Here’s a quick article about how fidgets are helpful. And for kids that do have a fidget spinner, a link to my You Tube Video about how to use fidget spinners in therapy.
- Reframing negative self-talk. (back to “is it true and is it helpful?”)
- Normalize and Validate. “These are common worries. It is okay to be worried. Most people going back to school are a little worried about something.”
There’s one final expression from my favorite play therapist, Garry Landreth that is paraphrased often
It’s not only what you do, but what you do after what you have done that is important.”
If you are reading this and thinking that you have said all of the wrong things and screwed your kid up for life, you haven’t. It’s not what you do, but what you do after what you have done. Go back and say, “You know when I told you not to worry about going to back to school…well, what I should have said was that it’s really normal to be worried about school.”
And then be quiet and just hold that space with your child. If they want to talk more, they will. If they don’t, that’s okay too.