It’s the beginning of a new school year! This can mean excitement about new activities and friends, but it can also mean increased worries and anxiety. You may find yourself wondering how much anxiety is typical as your child cries before going to school. Or, you may find yourself at wits end as he asks you the same question over and over. Or, you may be confused as to why your child is suddenly having meltdowns about things that aren’t a big deal.
First, don’t worry! Behavior changes and anxiety in the beginning of the school year are normal for everyone. Here are some tips that can help you handle these concerns, as well as some notes about when to seek additional help to assist you and your child.
(1) Realize that anxiety is normal!
Everyone experiences anxiety at some point, particularly in response to something new. We can all remember feeling a little jittery before a first day at school or before starting a new job. It’s normal for our kids to be nervous for the first week or two as they settle into a new routine with new teachers, expectations, and peers. Children with developmental disabilities, such as autism spectrum disorder, may have a particularly difficult time coping with all the changes occurring this time of year.
(2) Anxiety looks different in everyone.
For some kids, anxiety looks like worrying. It may mean asking the same questions over and over again. Some children will check and double-check information. Sometimes, anxiety will look like physical symptoms (headaches and stomachaches), or “injuries” that come and go. Anxiety can also show up in the form of crying spells, or “talking back” and seeming more short-tempered. For some children, anxiety will look like increased hyperactivity, tantrums, or meltdowns. Children with speech and language difficulties may engage in tantrum or meltdown behaviors as they have difficulty explaining their feelings of anxiety.
(3) Develop a routine.
When starting something new, familiar routines can be comforting and provide stability. Having a consistent morning and evening routine is a good way to ensure that predictability. Your child may not be able to anticipate what will happen at school during the day, but knowing they have a stable routine can ease some of the nerves both before and after school. Plus, having a regular bedtime and regular mealtimes helps regulate children physically and ensures they are well-rested to better manage everything that comes up during the day.
(4) Plan and practice.
When a child expresses anxiety or worries, it’s easy to slip into reassurance. While reassurance feels good in the moment, it doesn’t actually help anxiety in the long-run. Instead, help children to identify possible solutions. Role-playing how to handle situations can teach them to utilize coping skills independently and feel empowered to problem-solve in the future. For example, if your child is worried about forgetting his homework, practice what he will say to his teacher if he forgets it. If your child is concerned about not having anyone to sit with at lunch, role-play what it will be like to ask a peer if she can sit with them.
(5) Schedule downtime and affirm the good.
When I get home from work, I need to take 10-15 minutes to “reset” from my day before I’m ready to engage in other “home” activities. Providing that time to decompress and reset can be helpful to allow your children to “switch gears” and join in home activities. Once they’ve had some time, ask them about their day. Rather than asking “what did you do?” or “how was your day,” try asking specific questions about what went well and what could have gone better. Anxiety has a way of overshadowing positive aspects of the day, so find a way to identify the good things! Finally, remember to plan rewards after school for being brave. A trip to the playground, a special snack when they get home, or time to snuggle and watch a show can be great rewards for the bravery it takes to adjust to new things!
When to seek help:
Realize that some anxiety for the first few weeks of school is very normal – especially if other new activities are being thrown into the mix. The start of school is often the start of a new sports season, or the beginning of new extracurricular activities. Notice whether there are other things going on that may be contributing to your child’s anxiety.
If your child’s anxiety increases, or does not decrease in intensity over time, it may be time to talk with a professional. If your child is refusing to go to school, or if it becomes harder to get them to go, it’s definitely time to seek some additional assistance. Similarly, if you feel your child’s anxiety is impacting their achievement, or is inhibiting them such that they are having difficulty making friends, it may be time to contact a therapist for some additional help.