With summer having ended, worries can increase among parents and children alike. This time of year brings uncertainty, frequent transitions and changes, and increased academic, athletic and social pressures. Given these added stressors, a bit of anxiety is expected, and in fact, adaptive. For example, a mild level of anxiety helps us pay attention to important information in new situations that enables success. Additionally, specific to school, our motivation and dedication to prepare is somewhat driven by anxiety surrounding performance.
For some, however, anxiety can be overwhelming and debilitating. Parents frequently report irritability, avoidance, tearfulness, withdrawal, difficulty separating from parents, temper outbursts, and physical complaints, such as headaches and stomachaches. Also, time spent worrying about teachers, friendships, school performance, and changes to schedules can result in sleep and eating disturbances in the few weeks before and after school begins. Although it is common for children and adolescents to experience such anxiety, the stress from such behaviors and worries about whether the child will succeed has the potential to disrupt the entire family.
So, what can you do? First, support your child with identifying and sharing their feelings, including their fears. Normalize the experience by discussing the universality of anxiety, and your own experiences of starting new things or making transitions. Children and adolescents that I work with often express a desire for parents to “just listen,” so finding a regular time each day to validate their emotions and allow them space to open up can be instrumental in relieving some of the pressure they feel. It can be helpful to engage in an activity together during this process so as to reduce the level of vulnerability they feel, as well as to decrease the intensity of their emotions.
In response to their fears, parents often provide reassurance that nothing “bad” will happen, saying “It will be fine, don’t worry!” Additionally, they may encourage their child to avoid or escape the very situation that induces anxiety. While these strategies may reduce worry in the moment, for both child and parent, they reinforce the child’s need to avoid or always check with parents when anxiety arises. Instead, I encourage you to focus on teaching problem-solving and coping strategies that can be used in moments of stress. One technique that can be particularly helpful is role-play, as it helps the child feel more prepared and confident as they enter uncertain situations. Lastly, make sure to praise and reinforce your child for their hard work!
If significant symptoms of anxiety persist beyond the first few weeks of school, your child may benefit from further assessment and consultation with an expert, as well as therapeutic intervention. Consequences of untreated clinical anxiety amongst children and adolescents include poor coping, low self-esteem, academic dysfunction, and depression. Fortunately, there are a number of evidence-based treatment approaches that can help your child and family thrive. Resources can also be found on our links and resources page.