As the kids gear up for school this month, expect some back-to-school jitters, even from seasoned young scholars. “It’s perfectly normal for children of all ages to be anxious after being away for a few months,” says Melisa Robichaud, a clinical psychologist in Vancouver and director of programs at AnxietyBC. Older kids may know their way around the schoolyard, but they still worry about whether they’ll be able to do grade four math or if their BFFs will be in their class.
A lot of kids can’t articulate their fears, says Robichaud, so you may have to play detective. Queasy tummies, sleepless nights, unexpected clinginess, crying can all be signs of back-to-school anxiety. While most children will get back into the groove within a few weeks, there are things you can do to make the transition easier.
Talk it out. Before school starts, have a one-on-one chat to see if anything is worrying your child about the new school year. It could be something as simple as not knowing if she’ll have someone to sit with on the schoolbus.
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Have a coping plan. Ask your child to share her worst-case scenarios, then help her come up with her own ideas for coping with the situation. “That might involve role playing, where she acts as a demanding teacher or bullying classmate,” says Robichaud.
Skip the cheerleading. Try not to dismiss your child’s fears with feel-good phrases like “Everything will be fine,” says Robichaud. Instead, lend a sympathetic ear and share your own “first day” anxieties — the first time you started a new job, for example. Remind her of her past successes — how nervous she was starting grade one and how she ended up loving it.
Get back on schedule. Start easing kids back into a routine a few days or a week before school starts. Instead of tucking junior into bed earlier at night, when he’ll just toss and turn, focus on a consistent wake-up time, says Stacy DeBroff, author of The Mom Book Goes to School: Insider Tips to Ensure Your Child Thrives in Elementary and Middle School. In a few days, his internal clock will reset itself.
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Prep as much as possible. Lay out back-to-school outfits the night before and have lunches and backpacks ready. “Tuck something familiar in your child’s backback to make him feel more comfortable, and something new to make him feel special,” advises DeBroff.
Plan an early start. Set the alarm early enough to eat a healthy breakfast and deal with any last-minute crises.
Stay calm, cool and collected. Your child is looking to you for positive encouragement, so try to keep your own anxieties in check. Now is not the time to speculate about whether your child will like her new teacher.
Applaud her efforts. It can be tough for some kids to overcome first-day jitters, so don’t forget to praise and reward your child for her brave behaviour, says Robichaud. “It could be verbal praise — ‘You’re doing great!’ — or ordering a celebratory pizza for dinner and letting her pick the toppings.”