Coping with School Anxiety

The start of the school year often brings worry and anxiety for both kids and parents. The following tips are designed to help parents ease the transition for a child who may be prone to separation anxiety.

Avoid reassurances at the point of separation as such often has the opposite intended effect

A reassurance suggests, to an anxious child, that there is something threatening about to happen. Imagine I said to my clients  “Please don’t worry about the ceiling crashing down on us. I’ve made sure that we are in a safe environment.” Would their anxiety not be heightened as their eyes darted upwards and they wondered why the heck would I say that?

Try to calm any of your own anxiety as our kids often take their cues from us.

If I’m anxious about my son going to school–which is certainly an understandable thing to feel for that first-time departure–he is more likely to feel anxious as well. I do well to try to try to calm myself first and then imply that his going to school is as dramatic as a trip to the grocery store.

If your child is vulnerable to anxious reactions, try to familiarize her with the new setting as much as you can.

Familiarity can soften anxiety. Hence, see if you can arrange for a trip to your child’s classroom in advance. (Actually, the school may have already initiated an invitation along these lines.) It is difficult to imagine that competent school personnel would experience this as an intrusion or an odd request. Should you be unable to reach them take your child for a few dry runs up to the point of the hand off. Moreover, the Scaredy Squirrel books by Melanie Watt can be very helpful to read together.

Teach your child muscle relaxation and belly breathing.

Muscle relaxation and anxiety mix about as well as oil and water. Suggest to your child, if she is vulnerable to separation anxiety, that she is less likely to be afraid if her muscles are like a cooked piece of pasta instead of the uncooked variety. Moreover, she is less likely to experience fear if she breathes into her belly instead of her chest.

Consider arranging for someone less engaged with your child’s anxiety to manage the first few days.

If you anticipate that your child will do a white-knuckled clutch of your leg at the bus stop or at school, try to arrange for another caring and responsible adult to take him from your home to the separation point. By itself, this can reduce your child’s distress as (1) he has accomplished separation from you in a familiar setting (i.e., your home) and (2) he will be accomplishing the separation from someone less engaged with his anxiety.

Make the separation clean and quick.

If there is a significant chance that your child will be distressed at the point of separation arrange for a particular adult to take her hand from yours (or whoever else might be bringing her). Then, make this exchange efficiently. Try to avoid offering reassurances or waiting until your child seems calm. Actually, you might do well to expect some crying/screaming and to steel yourself to leave anyway. You could always call the school later to see how she’s doing; if your experience is typical, you’ll likely be told that she cried for a few minutes after you left and then was fine.

Please also see my post “My Child Gets Afraid A Lot. What Can I Do?

If the above strategies fail, or are otherwise not indicated, please consider consulting with an experienced child psychologist or like professional.

For a referral in your area, click here.

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