School-age

How to help your kid keep their school jitters in check

We asked a psychologist (and mom of two!) for the best ways to ease our kids' many back-to-school worries.

Heading back to school can bring out some big emotions—and that’s OK. We asked Deanne Simms, a registered clinical and health psychologist at The Well Parents Centre in Toronto, and a mom of two, to answer parents’ questions about the worries their kids are facing this September.

My son is worried that none of his friends will be in his class. How can I reassure him that he’ll be OK? 

This is a pretty common fear—it’s fear of the unknown. It’s important to listen and talk to him about it, empathize with the emotions he’s feeling and help him to name his worries. Acknowledge that it’s normal.

It can also help to share times when you felt the same way. Be transparent. “It was really hard for me to go back to my office because I haven’t been there in 18 months. I was worried about where my desk would be and who my colleagues would be. So here’s what I did: I took some calming breaths, I reminded myself that I can only control the controllable, and I talked to my friend on my way to work and they really made me feel better.” Then, in any way possible, balance that with any helpful information you do have (for example, class sizes or teachers).

My daughter was bullied last year and she’s nervous that it will happen again. What can I do? 

With bullying, there can be a tendency for kids to retreat, withdraw or hide, so make sure you’re having lots of talks about how she’s doing. She should know that you have an open-door policy and that anytime she feels unsafe or uncertain, she can talk to you about it.

In the meantime, reach out to the school so you can get a sense of what support systems are in place. Make sure that your kiddo can recognize when she’s feeling unsafe and knows who she can talk to or what she can do if something happens.

My kid is stressed about who his teacher will be next year. He’s worried they’ll be “strict.” 

Again, this is about a kid’s ability to tolerate uncertainty. Remind him of a time when he was able to show resilience or strength to get through other situations. You can say, “Remember when you had that swim instructor? She wasn’t your favourite but you still got something out of it. How did you get through that?” And present the other option: He could end up having a really great teacher! So it’s balancing the anxiety, teaching him to calm himself down in the face of the uncertainty and providing information specifically around how he’s coped in the past.

Getting through math last year was really hard, and my kid is worried about how she’ll do this year. 

Remind your daughter that we all have different strengths and different areas for skill building. Reassure her that you as the parent will show up for her and help her to develop the skills she needs.

As parents, it’s also important that we show our kids our own strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes kids think, It’s not fair, my parents know how to do all of these things. So it can be helpful to say to them, “I really struggled with math. Sometimes when
I’m doing my taxes, I get frustrated. Here’s what I do.”

After almost two years of virtual school, my kid doesn’t want to go back and is experiencing a lot of separation anxiety. What can I do? 

I’m expecting there to be a prevalence of this, this fall. It’s going to be uncomfortable, but there are things that parents and kids can do.

To start, predictable routines make things easier for kids.

Anything that calms the body is also helpful for kids. One technique is “stuffie breathing.” Get your child to lay flat on their back on their bed and put a stuffed toy on their tummy so they can see how their stomach moves up and down, which helps them breathe down into their bellies.

Teach your child coping statements that they can repeat to themselves at school, like “Even though I feel uncomfortable now, I can still do this.”

And as parents, we coach our kids and cheerlead them while they show courage and manage their emotions when they do different things in different settings.
It’s also really important that we tune in to our own anxieties and manage our own responses so that we can keep ourselves calm to help calm our children, especially when it’s time to say goodbye.

In some ways we have to lend our calm to our children.

Last September, my kid had a lot of headaches and stomach aches. Could he have just been missing home? 

Children of all ages, but especially younger kids, may express mental challenges through somatic or physical concerns. So they might say they have a headache or tummy ache when they’re actually feeling nervous. Sometimes it’s just because they don’t have the language and they don’t know how to express the anxiety or the worry, so be on the lookout for that and help them talk about it.

Anytime you notice a change that shows up and sticks around for a couple of weeks and starts to get in your kid’s way, check in with a GP, paediatrician or mental health support either at the school or outside of the school.