Thursday, August 16, 2018

Parenting Pointers: Back-to-School Anxiety

I recently had a chance to interview Laurie Hollman, Ph. D, about managing anxiety during the back-to-school time.

Why is back-to-school often a time of increased anxiety?

Back to school is often a time of increased anxiety because kids of all ages have anticipatory anxiety about their new teacher(s), the increase in difficulty of the subjects, the increase in homework, the new kids they need to get to know, the geography of a new building if they’re going to a new school, and social anxiety about how they will fit in with their peers. 

Each child is different and has different concerns at different ages. Kindergarteners worry about leaving home and being away from their familiar environment at preschool. First through fifth graders worry about fitting in and being liked by their teacher and the other kids. Middle schoolers have to adjust to a new school building, many teachers, lockers, and being the youngest once again in their school after being the oldest which felt so good. High schoolers also have to adjust to a new school plus college pressures begin to rise and questions of how much to schedule after school becomes an issue. For all there is performance anxiety wanting to please their parents and their teachers. 

How can parents help their children manage their concerns and fears about school?

Parents are key to their child’s adjustment and can offer open ended questions about their kids’ concerns, like “What’s up with school this year? Are you worried a bit? How can I help?” Being nonjudgmental is very important because no worry is too small to 

Visit the school and by chance maybe see the classroom(s) and the teacher(s), even chat with the principal to make him or her less foreboding an authority figure. Play on the playground with young kids and walk the building with older kids so they can learn how to find their different classrooms. Be chatty but don’t lecture your kids about do’s and don’ts. Let them lead the conversation so you can hear any underlying concerns and fears. 

Set up some playdates with kids who will be in elementary school classes, so the kids become familiar with each other and feel they have at least one buddy. Talk about sitting on the bus. Do they want to sit with a sibling? Do they want to sit with a friend down the block? If they know ahead the bus route and when they’ll see someone familiar getting on the bus, it helps a great deal to relax kids the first few days.

The basic idea is just to listen and listen some more. Attend to their questions, beliefs, ideas, and intentions about the new school year. Rather than give quick advice, ask them their views about what scares them. Then reassure them with a hug as often as needed. 

What are some signs that parents need to get additional help for their children?

If your child is very anxious recognized by their nervous habits like twirling their hair, shaking their feet, trembling, panic, excessive racing speech, consider that they are more than normally anxious. If they avoid going shopping for school clothes and notebooks, maybe they are avoiding thinking about school, a clue to increasing anxiety. If your child was bullied the previous year or had social behavior difficulties, they may fear the same will occur. Don’t hesitate to talk about any of such incidents to see if they are over them or still concerned. If you sense their anxiety is over the top, try to encourage them to seek professional help well before school begins so they have a feeling someone else is in their corner. Kids with OCD, panic attacks, generalized anxiety, and separation anxiety should definitely have their own therapist to guide them as they begin the new school year. Parents, too, should meet with the therapist to gain their guidance on relieving their kids’ anxiety. Try to intervene before the pressure mounts.

How can a parent help ease the compound anxiety that can happen when children worry about their worrying?

Sometimes the biggest fear is fear itself. A child worries that they will be in school and have no one to discuss a worry with. Reassure your child that every day you will be home at a certain time to discuss how the day went. Remind them that you love them and don’t have expectations that they need to meet. Also let them know all kids worry about beginning school again. This is normal. This generally relaxes kids to know others also have fears and concerns.

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Laurie Hollman, Ph.D, is a psychoanalyst with specialized clinical training in infant-parent, child, adolescent, and adult psychotherapy a unique practice that covers the life span. Dr. Hollman is widely published on topics relevant to parents and children such as juried articles and chapters in the international Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, The International Journal of Infant Observation and the Inner World of the Mother. She is the author of Unlocking Parental Intelligence – Finding Meaning in Your Child’s Behavior, winner of the Mom’s Choice Award, and the Busy Parent’s Guides series of books: The Busy Parent’s Guide to Managing Anxiety in Children and Teens – The Parental Intelligence Way, and The Busy Parent’s Guide to Managing Anger in Children and Teens – The Parental Intelligence Way (Familius, Aug. 1, 2018). Learn more at

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