By James J. Crist, Ph.D., author of What to Do When You’re Scared and Worried: A Guide for Kids
Most kids look forward to the end of the school year. No more getting up early, doing homework, studying for tests, or dealing with bullying at school. What’s not to like? Seems like everyone looks forward to summer!
However, as summer wears on, many kids start getting bored and miss the excitement of hanging out with friends on a daily basis. At the same time, many kids do not look forward to school starting again. The anticipation of getting up early, making new friends, and worrying about homework and grades can make it harder for kids as they get ready to return to school. But having mixed feelings about back-to-school is normal. By helping kids talk about their feelings, adults can make it easier for kids to process those feelings and get ready for school in the fall.
Anxious children often have particular difficulty returning to school. They may become clingier, have trouble sleeping, and may voice fears about school. If they have heard about school shootings or have had experience with bullies, their anxiety is likely heightened. Meeting a new teacher can be difficult if you’re not sure if that teacher will be nice or mean. Some kids worry about not knowing anyone in their class if their friends are all in different classes. Kids who struggle academically will worry about their school performance and the stress of keeping up with homework and doing well on tests, as well as their overall grades.
Parents Have Mixed Feelings Too
Just as kids can have mixed feelings about returning to school, parents can too. For some parents, the beginning of summer can be a relief from the stress of having to monitor children’s grades, email teachers, make sure homework gets done and is turned in, and transport kids to sporting practices and other after-school activities. At the same time, keeping kids entertained all summer can be challenging. Many of today’s kids value screen time above all else, and it can be a battle getting them to engage in healthier activities, such as playing outside. While some parents may look forward to having their kids return to school, others may dread the pressure that comes with helping kids be successful, particularly parents of kids who struggle academically or socially.
Helping Kids Cope
One of the most helpful things parents can do is simply reflect and validate kids’ feelings. You don’t need to convince them that they’ll have a great year, and you don’t want to minimize their concerns. Start by asking open-ended questions. For example: “How are you feeling about returning to school?” With younger kids, who often have a harder time putting feelings into words, it can help to give options: “Are you looking forward to returning to school, wishing you didn’t have to go back, or maybe some of both?” You might also name some feelings kids may have, for example: “Some kids feel nervous about going back to school. Is that something you are feeling too?” Let them know that it is normal to have mixed feelings and that it is okay to talk about them.
Often, stress about a situation stems from not feeling in control of what happens. So focusing on things they can control can help kids feel better about a stressful situation. Printing out the school calendar can help provide structure, including marking down days off and the beginning and end of the quarter. Going shopping for new school clothes can be fun for some kids. Practicing reading, especially with kids who don’t read much, can get them into the habit of doing schoolwork. Setting up an area for doing homework and making a schedule for when homework will be completed each day or week helps provide a routine. Allowing your child input into this process makes it more likely that they will follow through.
Making a list of pros and cons can help kids look at their feelings more objectively. You can ask: “What are some good things about going back to school? What are some not-so-good things?” If kids have trouble coming up with anything, you can suggest some possibilities. Some good things might include being around friends, making new friends, getting out of the house, learning interesting things, talking to friends during lunch and playing with them during recess, and maybe even not being around siblings all day! Some not-so-good things might include having to get used to a new teacher, making new friends, worrying about bullying, worrying about grades and homework, and even being away from parents and siblings, which can be harder for anxious kids.
Teaching Stress-Management Skills Can Help
Techniques such as mindfulness and deep breathing can help manage stress over returning to school. Mindfulness involves paying attention to what is happening around you in the moment. Tuning in to what you notice in your environment, such as what you see, hear, smell, or feel, can help kids feel grounded and move their focus away from unpleasant feelings.
Parents can practice this with kids at home. Noticing the feel of a stuffed animal or the beauty or scent of a flower can be a good way to start. Combining this with deep breathing (sometimes called belly breathing, balloon breathing, or square breathing) helps the body relax. Breathing in and out slowly to the count of five works well for most people. An internet search for “belly breathing for kids” will yield a number of short videos you and kids can watch. Here are two good examples:
For more information on mindfulness, which includes short audio clips of mindfulness exercises, check out the Mindful website. Guided meditations or guided imagery can also be helpful to put kids into a more relaxed state. Kids can listen to the soothing voice of the facilitator describe a calming scene. You can record your own voice reading a meditation or check out one of the many videos online. Here’s an example titled “Letting Go of Worries”:
Ask your child for suggestions on what they think a calming scene would be. It could be at the beach, curled up in front of a fire, or watching a balloon slowly float up to the sky. Here’s a script you can use.
Systematic desensitization is a therapy technique that helps people deal with scary situations by thinking about them one step at a time and using deep breathing when the thoughts of the situation become too scary. Kids can learn to use their imagination to walk through the steps of going through the school day as if they are watching a movie or video. When combined with deep breathing, kids can desensitize themselves to the idea of going to school. If they start feeling anxious, they can stop the imaginary video, take deep breaths until they feel calmer, and restart the video. Kids can practice until they can get through the entire school day without feeling anxious. For some kids, visiting the school prior to the first day can help allay the anxiety of going to school, especially if the school is new for them.
If your child expresses worries about returning to school, help them come up with a game plan to handle them. For example, they can plan to talk with their teacher privately before or after school if they need extra help. If they know who their school counselor is, you can have them write that person’s name and room number on their agenda or planner so that they can seek them out if they have trouble handling feelings or dealing with conflict.
It’s normal to have mixed feelings about returning to school, for kids as well as for parents. Helping kids talk about their feelings openly and providing them with strategies to cope can go a long way toward a successful transition back to school.
Dr. James J. Crist is the clinical director and a staff psychologist at the Child and Family Counseling Center (CFCC) in Woodbridge, Virginia, and a substance abuse counselor, working with addictive disorders in teens and adults. At CFCC, he provides psychological testing and individual, couples, and family psychotherapy for children, adolescents, and adults, specializing in children with ADHD, depression, and anxiety disorders. Visit his website at jamesjcrist.com.
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