How to Curb Back-to-School Anxiety

Expert advice for parents and children
August 21, 2019 Updated: August 21, 2019

Are your kiddos excited to go back to school? Underneath mumbling and grumbling about the prospect of returning (or starting school for the first time) may lie a sense of worry or anxiety

Dr. Scott Symington is a clinical psychologist and author of “Freedom from Anxious Thoughts and Feelings: A Two-Step Mindfulness Approach for Moving Beyond Fear and Worry.” I asked Dr. Symington for his advice for curbing back-to-school anxiety. Here’s what he said.

The Epoch Times: Back-to-school time can drum up feelings of anxiety, especially for the littlest students entering kindergarten. What strategies can parents employ to prepare their kindergarteners for their transition to school?

Dr. Scott Symington: Try the CAR approach: C = Communicate, A = Acclimate in Advance, R = Routines. 

Scott Symington
Dr. Scott Symington. (Courtesy of Scott Symington)

Communicate. Prior to school starting, ask your little one about her thoughts and feelings. What are you excited about? Are you worried about anything? Start the dialogue. Normalize any fears she has and—when appropriate—relate it back to your own experience growing up. You want to communicate that it’s normal to be afraid and that she can be both excited and fearful at the same time. It may also be helpful to highlight an example where she faced and overcame a challenge, such as acclimating to a new summer camp. 

Acclimate in Advance. In addition to engaging your little one in dialogue, there are other ways to demystify the upcoming school experience. You can drive by the school and point out the new classroom, as well as where the drop-off/pick-up is. Maybe your child would like to draw a picture for the new teacher or look at the teacher’s picture to begin forming a connection. If at all possible, it’s also helpful to connect your child to other incoming students who are in the same grade or classroom.  

Routines. It’s important to set up the home routines and structures before school starts. Set the new bedtime they’ll have once school starts. Try to have dinner around the same time, followed by a predictable ritual for bath time and winding down before lights out. The home structure should allow for a smooth, consistent transition from coming home tired (and full of rich experiences) to a peaceful head on the pillow. 

The Epoch Times: Of course, it’s not just kindergarteners who may feel anxiety about heading back to school. In what ways do older children tend to experience anxiety this time of year?

Dr. Symington: As kids get older, often separation anxiety (being away from parents and the home) is less of an issue. There are still worries, however, around fitting in socially, getting used to a new teacher, and the general uncertainty of a new experience. In addition, kids also can worry about the increased demand and pressure that comes with the new grade. There can be fears of failing and not being able to keep up with their peers, as well as handling the homework load. 

The Epoch Times: What have you observed in your practice about childhood anxiety in general? What are you most concerned about?

Dr. Symington: A lot of kids worry. Around 20 percent of children and adolescents are affected by anxiety. Our children worry about failing tests (and sometimes the grade); being called on in class; navigating teacher personalities; something bad happening to their parents; being bullied or socially excluded; and the list goes on. 

The challenge is most kids aren’t talking about these worries, for fear of not being understood or viewed as different. That’s why as parents we need to be aware of the signs that our child’s worries—something all children experience to one degree or another—have become a problem, such as a noticeable change in behavior or physical symptoms that are often associated with anxiety (stomach problems, headaches, etc.). What we don’t want is a worried child who feels privately embattled and alone in his anxiety. 

The Epoch Times: Are there environmental factors that parents can adjust to try to decrease their children’s anxiety? For example, how does sleep and diet impact anxiety levels, typically?

Dr. Symington: Circling back to the CAR approach mentioned earlier, set routines are key for your child. Create a home structure and rituals that support what you know is good and healthy for your loved one, even if he or she resists it in the beginning. They need a lot of sleep and a home ritual that supports this important need. And food matters too! There is a direct correlation between sugar intake and elevated anxiety symptoms. Limit the treats and increase the healthy proteins and vegetables.

The Epoch Times: Parents may also experience anxiety about their children returning to school. What advice would you give them?

Dr. Symington: You are the primary role model for your child. Implement the healthy strategies from which your loved one would also benefit. Share your worries with a trusted other or write them down and then redirect your attention and life energy to other life activities, instead of going away in your mind and continuously investing in the distressing thoughts. 

I developed a user-friendly application of mindfulness that guides you through the specific mental and emotional steps that defuse anxious thoughts and feelings: “Freedom From Anxious Thoughts & Feelings: A Two-Step Mindfulness Approach for Moving Beyond Fear & Worry.” It’s an approach you can also share with your child. 

Lastly, for your stress and your child’s wellbeing, adopt and practice mindful breathing. Your breath is key in regulating the central nervous system, the system that is implicated in both anxiety and relaxation. There are apps, such as Headspace and Calm, and other programs (Mind Yeti, etc.) that can help you and your family integrate mindfulness into a busy life. 

The Epoch Times: Are there any other tips you’d recommend parents keep in mind during the back-to-school season?

Dr. Symington: Remember you’re supposed to apply the oxygen mask first to your own face and then your child’s. If you pass out, you can’t be that helpful to your child. To be present, emotionally balanced, and resourceful, you need to stay anchored and healthy as a person. Figure out what you need as an individual and parent to keep your stress down and your spirits high. Once you identify them, build theses activities and routines into the schedule much like a fixed appointment.  

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