It is normal for children and teens (adults too!) to experience anxiety as they prepare to go back to school. Remember that every single human being has anxiety built into their bodies—it is kind of like a self-defense mechanism for the body. It warns you and helps keep you safe when you feel that you are threatened or are in danger. It prepares your body for the fight-flight-freeze response. Anxiety is actually a good thing to have when it is functioning the way it should.
Unfortunately, anxiety can turn into a problem when it becomes too sensitive or when it stops working properly. Think of anxiety like a smoke alarm. Its original design is to warn you of danger but it becomes problematic if the alarm starts going off when there is no real smoke or fire around. As students prepare to go back to school, sometimes they would start thinking of unpleasant and stressful thoughts and as a result cause their anxiety to spike.
Identify Thinking Traps and Look for Evidence
In order to help students deal with back to school anxiety, one of the strategies is to help them identify the thoughts that trigger the anxiety. Sometimes these thoughts are realistic or sometimes they can be unrealistic.
For example, if a student was bullied the year before and he knows that the same bully will be in his class this coming year, his worries are quite realistic and it makes total sense that he would be stressed about it! In this case, it would be crucial to help problem-solve which may include working with the school, talking to the teacher ahead of time, equipping your child with skills to cope with bullies, and other ways to help deal with the issue.
On the other hand, imagine if a student becomes worried about being bullied and fears that he will get beaten up— even though he has never been bullied before and there is no real evidence supporting that he will get bullied. In this case, the child has what we call a “thinking trap.”
There are many different types of thinking traps (e.g. mind-reading, predicting the future, catastrophizing, all-or nothing) and these traps are often what can perpetuate one’s anxiety. It will be important to help the student look for factual evidence that either support or does not support the particular thinking trap and to help him come up with a more realistic and helpful way of dealing with the problem. This process can be challenging and sometimes it may even require a professional to help.
There are many other general strategies to help students deal with back to school anxiety. AnxietyBC (a great resource for anxiety!) has provided several helpful strategies which I have highlighted and summarized below. You can also read their full article here.
1) Don’t avoid the situation.
The more you or your child avoids going to school or to a certain class, the more it will increase and reinforce the fears of going there in the long-term. Instead, try to look for ways to talk about the fears and come up with a solution to help reduce the worries.
2) Avoid reassurance-seeking, instead try problem-solving and plan!
Try not to rely excessively on going to other people to have them reassure you that bad things won’t happen. Instead, try making a plan to help reduce or solve the problem. (Johnny’s note: In particular, children would often turn to their parents/caregivers for reassurance. Instead of providing reassurance, try reflecting and validating their worries first, and then work with the child to come up with various solutions.)
3) Look after the basics.
Make sure you or your child is eating well, sleeping enough, and have a regular routine (especially for children!). Physical activity can be helpful too!
4) Role-play anxious situations.
For some anxiety-provoking situations, it may be helpful to role-play the scenario so that the student will feel more confident in dealing with it. For parents, you can also use role-playing as a way to model and teach your child how to cope with scary situations.
5) Focus on the positive aspects.
Sometimes anxiety can overshadow and minimize any other positive things going on. Remind yourself or your child of the positives, and help re-direct their attention towards the good.
AnxietyBC has also recently published a 12-Step Back to School Checklist for Parents which can be useful if you have a child who is anxious.
The transition going back to school can be difficult, but it can also be an opportunity for you or your child to grow stronger and closer!
If you have any additional questions or worries about anxiety, feel free to send me an email and I’d be more than happy to help out!
I hope this post has been helpful for you or your child! If there are any future topics you may want me to write about, feel free to leave me a message. Thanks!
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Johnny's passion is in helping children, youths, and families restore mental wellness. He is a registered clinical counsellor and has worked with children and teens for over 10 years in various settings including government child and youth mental health, non-profits, and faith-based communities.