How can I ease my child’s back-to-school jitters?

Meaghan O’Keeffe, RN, BSN, is a mother, writer and nurse. She worked at Boston Children’s Hospital for nearly a decade, in both the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit and the Pre-op Clinic.  She is a regular contributor to Thriving.

Meaghan_OKeeffe_1Back-to-school season is rolling in. Many things, like the smell of erasers, the feel of a new notebook, the packing of that first lunch, spark excitement. A fresh school year is the promise of new beginnings.

But your child may be experiencing more than excitement. A different classroom, new teacher and unknown expectations can cause the annual return of back-to-school jitters.

Kids show worry in a variety of ways. Your child may verbally express that she’s feeling nervous or afraid, but for some, anxiety might show up in the form of bellyaches or headaches. Still, with others, you may just notice a slight change in behavior, like becoming more emotional, more withdrawn or more defiant. Even if your child gives no hint that she is experiencing a case of nerves, it never hurts to be prepared in the event that she does. You can even bring it up on your own, focusing on statements like, “A lot of times, kids and even grownups can feel nervous before starting something new. Have you ever felt that way?”

Whether you know or just suspect that your child is experiencing a case of back-to-school nerves, here are a few tips to help ease her into a new school year.

Modify expectations

schoolWhen your child has difficulty heading off to school, it’s easy to watch the other kids skip off without even a wave to their parents and feel a twinge of jealousy. Why can’t my daughter be more like those kids? Try not to compare your child to others—each has her own strengths and limitations. While it’s perfectly natural to want an easy transition for you and your own child, modifying your expectations and setting small goals will keep both you and her feeling encouraged and motivated to make progress. Praise improvements, however small. And make sure your expectations are realistic.

Set firm limits about not doing things that frighten them

When it comes to getting kids to overcome their fears, firm limit-setting can be a balancing act. You want to advocate for your kids to feel safe in an environment where they can learn and make mistakes—and hopefully learn from their mistakes—but you also want to teach them they can’t get out of everything they don’t want to do.

When my kids had a bad swimming lesson experience, I found an alternate class that was much more geared toward their learning style. I felt great about that decision. Once in a different class with a more supportive teacher, they began to develop greater confidence. But even in the new class, there were attempts to get out of doing certain things, like blowing bubbles in the water.

One day before class, Sophie cried, “I want you to tell the teacher I don’t need to blow bubbles. I already know how to blow bubbles.” I so badly wanted to say she didn’t need to blow bubbles, but I knew that would only make things worse. So my answer remained a calm and repetitive, “No, I cannot do that.” She went. She blew bubbles. And she felt awesome. Consequently, so did I.

Help shrink the worry

open communication is important in processing tragety

Well-known author, Anne Lamott, tells a lovely version of a classic childhood experience in her book, Bird by Bird. Her school-age brother leaves a project until the day before it’s due. He has to write reports on several birds and is entirely overwhelmed with the daunting task. His father tells him, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” It’s one of the greatest pieces of advice a parent can give. When your son is scared about being in a new classroom with a new teacher, and the homework will be too hard, and he’s heard that everybody fails the tests and there’s an oral report in the spring, he’s layering fear upon fear upon fear and trying to swallow the whole school year in one bite. Help him deconstruct his worries into smaller and more manageable obstacles.

Normalize your child’s feelings

Reassure your child that lots of other kids feel the same way, even if you can’t tell by looking at them. New environments and changes in routine naturally ruffle our feathers at times. Think of a cat that, after a move to a new place, might not eat or use its litter box for the first day or so. The cat is going through a normal adjustment process, and your child will too. Let him know that the process is common to all of us. Simply knowing that most of us experience these kinds of emotions can help make those feelings easier to accept.

Allow them to feel the feelings—this is their journey

School-bus_young-boyWatching our kids go through some of the same uncomfortable emotions that we recall experiencing growing up is painful. Our natural instinct is to fix it, make it better or take away the hurt. But it’s just as important to allow our kids to experience and work through these kinds of life situations. Support them, listen to them and empower them. But you can’t live it for them. You can be the safety net, but they need to fly on the trapeze for themselves.