3 Tips for Back-to-School Anxieties

Most children (and parents) have some anxiety about returning to school.

Even if it's mixed with excitement. Change is afoot, so below we offer some tips for navigating it thoughtfully. 

1. See it as an opportunity to learn from your child

Discover new facets of his experience or her specific fears. Try not to judge or immediately problem-solve. For a younger child you can play school and let her be the teacher, a 'mean' classmate, or the fly on the wall. Let things play out and trust that you will learn a lot from the play time. Maybe certain themes emerge (like a mean classmate!), which may lead to a (later) conversation about it and some collective problem-solving. 

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For older kids try to embrace a light, gentle stance when talking about school. You may not get as much information through play or direct questions, but if you sense some uncertainty (which most kids will have) it's a great time to tell stories about your own school transitions or excitement-mixed-with-fear. Normalize what they are feeling by offering up personal experiences or mixed emotions about when you have to go back to work. Trust that even if they don't say Thanks, dad! or articulate what they're feeling, they are picking up what you're putting down. And it lays the groundwork for future conversations. 


2. Let home be a safe haven.

So much of being in school is being 'on' and being judged by peers or teachers -- often both. Let home be a space where your child can unwind and not feel judged. This means he or she may release big emotions on you/at siblings/at seemingly random times. Or just need to shut off for a while. Your job is to empathize and understand that the work of going to school and being on is absolutely exhausting. Consider adjusting your home expectations a bit as the transition back to school takes hold. 

Maybe you let your child: have a messier room/forget to brush teeth/skip a chore/have a little extra screen time/be a bit more whiny than usual. 

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It's not that you are lowering your standards for their behavior more generally, but rather adjusting, accepting and putting it into context. Your 9-year-old has not suddenly completely reverted back to her 5-year-old tantrums and inability to emotionally regulate. Instead, she is exhausted. She's adjusting. She's adapting. She needs your support and understanding, and sometimes a soft place to land comes in the form of not demanding the usual expectations. You can even state it: "Honey, I know you're extra tired from going back to school, so during September I'll load the dishwasher on your nights so you can have a little extra down-time."

3. Model regulating your own anxieties

Take a deep breath. The change is a-coming. And of course you're anticipating it!

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Maybe you'll need to keep your family on a tighter schedule, manage more big emotions unleashed at home, or re-engage with the genius-level puzzle that is transportation, school and extracurricular logistics. 

As you navigate this shift in routines keep in mind that you are always modeling for your children. How do you handle stress? How do you talk about the changes to the schedule? Notice the language you use, your body language have when calling a babysitter to help with pick-ups, or the tension in your jaw when your child is unleashing big emotions. Consider small ways you might model flexibility and resilience when the ground is shifting a bit beneath all of you. 

Yes, change is good. It helps us learn resilience. And change can be both exciting and hard. Have realistic expectations for your children and yourself. A wide range of skills can be explored and practiced during predictable life cycles, like going back to school. 

Keren Gudeman

Minneapolis, Minnesota