The beginning of the school year can be a stressful time for many children and parents with new routines, new surroundings and new people. Last month, I talked about ways to talk to kids about the first day of school and help them prepare. But what about kids who, even after some preparation about what to expect, still feel anxious?
It can be helpful for parents to strike a balance between empathizing with the child and also focusing on the child’s ability to cope. Parents can let kids know that their nervous feelings are understandable and normal and in fact, many of their friends and classmates probably feel the same way as they do. Asking children what they have heard about the year ahead and what their worries are, allows you to talk things through. While some worries may realistically reflect uncertainty, other worries can be unrealistic and represent worst-case-scenario thinking. Parents can help with this second type of worry by going through the facts and reality of the situation with the child, which can ease some of the anxiety.
In addition to empathizing, it is important to focus on the child’s ability to cope. Research shows that giving the message You can do this or You’ve got this can be very helpful to people of all ages facing stressful situations. In fact, it is often more helpful than providing a lot of reassurance to an anxious child and telling them everything is going to be fine and go their way.
Even more powerful than what parents say to their children, is what they show them through their own behavior. Parents can model optimism and confidence through their own attitudes and actions. This can help children remember the more positive aspects of the back-to-school jitters too—the excitement they are feeling about what lies ahead.
Although sometimes, it can be challenging for parents to model a confident and optimistic attitude because of their own anxiety. Children often are highly attuned to how parents are feeling about things that are relevant to them, so they may pick up on a parent’s uncertainty and worry. If parents can be aware of this and can pay attention to their own self-care, that can make a huge difference for the child as well.