It’s almost fall, which means Back-to-School season is in full effect.
While some kids dread early mornings, alarm clocks, and homework, they still look forward to school; to enjoying friendships, making new connections, sports, and new activities. Some children, however, have a legit fear of going back to school. They worry about potential bullying, ex boyfriends or girlfriends, managing high expectations and unfortunately, violence at school. Some kids have a hard time coping with social pressure, while others are worried about what they’re expected to learn, and some are already feeling anxious thinking about meeting their own high expectations they put on themselves the first day of school.
If your child or teen is feeling stressed at the thought of going back to school, here are some ways you can help:
Ask Them What’s on Their Mind
Some kids might voluntarily share their worries about going back to school, but many won’t. If your child’s been a little more quiet than usual, ask them how they’re feeling about starting the new school year.
Older kids and teenagers often shut down when questioned about, well, anything really. So try to keep it open ended (questions that are not answered by a yes or no). For instance, what or who are they looking forward to seeing or not seeing. What have you heard about your teachers or the classes your taking? How are you feeling about your schedule this semester?
Generally, “nothing” or “fine” is a pretty common response, but it is still important to be available and by available I also mean present. Put your phone away, stop what you’re doing when checking in with your child. Maybe even check in over a relational activity like making dinner together or sharing a meal. If they don’t respond, try again the next day. Eventually, when they’re ready, they will open up to you because they know you care and they know you’re safe. When they do, try to hide your excitement…and listen, really listen. Show a genuine interest in what they’re saying and catch yourself if you start to judge, advise, or try and solve all their problems. If they want your advice, they’ll ask. At the very least, get their permission before giving your two cents.
Get Them Involved
To some children, summer means a taste of freedom, of making choices for themselves, while school means daily grind, back to routine, and little or no autonomy. To help counter this feeling, get your kids involved in decision-making at the very beginning. Help them explore opportunities that provide leadership building or a creative outlet like clubs, sports, or volunteering. If they have a passion, help them exercise that passion in a meaningful way either within our outside of school. Give them a voice in how their daily and weekly schedule will look and give them some room to grow the responsible and independent parts of themselves.
Get Them UN-Involved
To other children a new school year means endless extracurricular activities, managing sports schedules, work-study, College Prep Classes, volunteer opportunities, Leadership programs, late night cram sessions, college applications and more. For the busy child, check in with your child’s stress level, eating and sleeping habits. If you notice changes in their social interactions, sleep patterns, or eating patterns, mood, or energy levels check in with them. In addition to asking what’s on their mind, express your observations in their changes in behavior. Invite them to explore their current responsibilities or expectations and talk about what’s priority, what’s important, and what’s maybe not so important that can be eliminated from their plate. For more on this topic, read How to Help Your Child Balance School and Extracurricular Activities .
Talk About Bullying
Kids of all ages worry about bullying, so it’s important to bring up the topic. You could make a simple statement, something like, “Bullying is really common and it’s never OK. If anything happens to you or you see it happen to someone you know, I want you to tell me about it. We can make a plan together of how to handle it.” You can also teach your teen some basic assertive communication to use in the event they are in an uncomfortable conversation with a peer. Also be sure to discuss safety, how to scan and assess their environment and what to do if ever they felt they were in danger.
School and Community Mental Health Resources for Children and Teens
Then there are those children who worry about starting school because they may be struggling with other issues such us anxiety, depression, a learning disability, a chaotic home, foster care, or recent adjustments (just to name a few). These children need help from a professional who can support them by offering services, tools, and resources for coping at home and at school. If you are looking for mental health services to support the social/emotional health of your child, explore the resources in your area.
Schools often have a Wellness or Care Center that houses a school psychologist, nurse, and possibly even onsite mental health clinician. While many school psychologists spend a bulk of their time completing testing, managing crisis, and supporting students through Individual Education Program (IEPs) teams, they are a wealth of knowledge for linking families to resources. Some schools even offer brief programs that provide not only a safe, confidential space to talk, but also basic coping skills to help them manage the everyday stressors of school or home life.
Even if there are limited or no resources available on campus, know that staff often have resource listings available for you to explore local resource center, clinics, or mental health providers that can provide crisis intervention, long-term therapy services, and more.