Most children of all ages experience “butterflies in the belly” as the first day of school approaches for a variety of reasons. Some kids look forward to routine and structure, seeing their friends, and getting involved in activities. However, many children experience anxiety and fear about the new school year.
CNN recently reported that homework and testing created the most anxiety in school-aged children. This fear is not unfounded as a new study recently published in the American Journal of Family Therapy, indicates that children are getting excessive amounts of homework – sometimes more than three times the homework standards recommended by experts. This includes kindergartners!
Other common fears that children have about the start of school are:
- Change of school: This could be due to transitioning from elementary to middle school or middle to high school, or the family relocating to a new district or town.
- Different schedule: For students in upper grades, juggling a new schedule and/or activities can create anxiety as they worry about increased responsibilities and their ability to meet expectations.
- Fear of the unknown: These type of fears may include not knowing their teachers, worrying about changing classes and getting lost, and concerns about making new friends.
- Social issues: Children almost always worry about whether or not they will fit in with their peers, especially if they have a history of social awkwardness.
- Bullying concerns: Many children have been exposed to bullying incidents either directly or by seeing someone else being bullied. Fears of being picked on or ostracized often create a great deal of anxiety.
How You Can Help
First, take care of the basics by making sure your child is getting enough sleep, and eating healthy meals and snacks. Physical activity is also important. In addition, establishing routines and daily structure will bring much needed comfort.
Encourage your child to talk about his fears without making light of them. While offering reassurance is nice, go the distance by engaging in problem-solving. For example, ask your child “what’s the worst that could happen?” Then, talk about different scenarios and the best ways to handle those situations if they arise. Having a plan of action can be very empowering.
Often, the fun things about school are overlooked when a child is chronically worried about other things. Concentrate on the positive aspects of school by asking your child to name three things she is excited about. It could be something simple as a new pair of shoes, or motivating like joining the school chorus.
It’s always painful to see your child suffer from any type of worry or concern, but it can be even more so if you suspect that their anxiety is cause for a deeper concern. If your child’s level of distress impacts their quality of life and prevents them from getting adequate sleep, miss out on social activities, have changes in behavior, or worry on a frequent basis, he or she could be suffering from an anxiety disorder. If they continue to be anxious for several weeks, consult with a mental health professional for an evaluation. A therapist can provide insight and skills to help both children and parents manage overwhelming anxiety.