Feelings of anxiety and worry are normal during significant transitions. It's expected that children and teenagers feel nervous before the first day of school. Some children, however, experience more intense fear and subsequently tantrum, refuse and lash out prior to the start of school. If this is occurring, and lasting into the first few weeks of the school year it may be time to seek expert help.
Below are some helpful reminders for your anxious kiddo leading up to the first day/week of school:
1. Avoidance is never the answer. Although the fear may be crippling, avoiding one's fear and anxiety often leads to more severe and long term problems. If your child is refusing, do what you can to get them to attend one class. If that seems impossible, can they make it to the counselor's office? It's important to identify small and realistic goals each step of the way.
2. Do not provide too much reassurance to the worry. Reassurance to worry is like gasoline on the fire. It provides short term relief but can rob your child of their confidence in their own decision making. One question or concern requires assurance, being asked the same question repeatedly is reassurance seeking. Instead, help your child identify their concern and attempt to generate solutions to their problem. If this seems impossible it's likely the concern is unrealistic. This process can help them acknowledge this.
3. Your child's behavior is predictable. If they were an anxious child last year, and the year before, and the year before that, and they have not had specialized treatment please do not expect they have outgrown their distress. It's wishful thinking that causes chaos when they predictably melt down during the days leading up to school. It's easier to avoid talking to your child about their worry. They are enjoying summer and you don't want to ruin it. Help them prepare for the first day by acknowledging their fears and articulating them. Talk about preparing for predictable feelings of anxiety and ways to manage it.
4. In the spirit of preparation see if there are opportunities for your child to practice being at school during the summer. This could be during new student orientation, sports try-outs, or even teacher in-services. Try and spend time at the unfamiliar school and allow your child's brain to recognize there is no danger. It may be helpful to walk the route to each class ahead of time. Anxiety is fueled by uncertainty. In this occasion, it's helpful to reduce this as much as possible.
5. Fitting in is terrifying. It will be helpful if your child has a friend, acquaintance, or familiar face when they arrive at school. Does the school have a program to help new students? Is there a neighbor kid they've made friends with? Some type of ally can help manage the initial worry of walking into a new place.
6. Manage your own anxiety. Are you actually terrified for your child? Does the uncertainty make you anxious, or do you feel responsible for your child's emotional experience? Your anxiety is contagious and can compound you child's worries. If you recognize it's your stuff that's driving your interventions to take a deep breath and stop it. You are not actually responsible for your child's emotional experience. You can walk side by side them but can't own their stuff.