Back-to-school season is the annual peak of anxiety for kids. After all, every new year comes with a new teacher and new expectations. Homework begins again, as do pop quizzes, tests, and the constant social gauntlet of school halls. So how can parents help deal with back-to-school anxiety in kids?
Dr. Laura Markham, Columbia University clinical psychologist, founder of AhaParenting.com, and a mom who is prepping her own kid for class, knows how to identify where this agita comes from and how to arm you with the words to get them through it. But let them know it was a nice try with the whole mannequin in the bed contraption.
How to Identify Anxiety in Kids
Anxiety is that mild fear that some kids can describe, and others not so much. Markham says there are a few ways to tell if they’re worked up: Nothing you do is good enough. They complain about everything (like this crap for dinner). They might take it out on siblings, or they’re having more trouble than usual getting to sleep or getting ready in the morning. “Any time a kid is acting badly, they need connection with you or they’re struggling with something, and if it’s near the start of the school year, that’s usually it,” she says. Alternatively, your cooking may just suck.
How to Help With Back-to-School Anxiety in Kids
- Start a Parent-Teacher Association: Turn their teacher into a surrogate parent for the 4 to 6 hours they’re away. “They need to learn to attach to the person they’re with during the day. This will create a relationship with the teacher even before they have a real relationship,” says Markham.
- Go Early: Especially important if they’re going to a new school, head there a day early and take a quick tour to get them familiar with the place. Make sure you show them where the bathrooms are — because potty anxiety is real.
- Arrange Play Dates With Classmates; “Even if they don’t become best friends, he’ll have a friendly face at lunchtime,” say Markham. “Parents assume kids know how to make friends but that’s not always the case. The whole Mean Girls thing can happen as early as third grade.”
How to Plan the First Day
Soon they’ll leave for school with the nonchalance you have commuting to work, but if you want a smooth handoff when they’re little, try this:
- Play Before School: Get them up 10 or 15 minutes earlier to stage a pillow fight or give them an airplane ride. “Anything that gets them laughing is good. It reduces stress hormones and can help kids adjust a lot better and feel less nervous before entering the classroom,” she says.
- Leave Them With a Parting Gift: For young kids, Markham suggests doing a silly routine where you sit them on your lap, and when they walk away from you, say, “No, don’t leave me!” Feign bravery and say, “I know we’ll always come back to each other, so I’m going to be brave and let you go to school.” Reverse psychology. Classic.
- Meet a Friend Outside: Find their buddy outside the building so they can walk in together. Markham says that even if they’re in different classrooms they’ll feel more comfortable.
What to Do Right After School
“When we’re away from our kids all day, a lot goes on for them emotionally,” says Markham. “They come home with a full emotional backpack.” Here’s how you let them unpack it: First, come bearing snacks. Their blood sugar is plummeting by this hour, so be prepared. And, if possible, let them play on the playground after school, too. (Both will help make the car ride or walk home 90 percent less whiny.)
Make an Evening Routine
For this initial period, and beyond, keep it simple. Make things easy for yourself: Cook simple dinners and reheat leftovers to free up time in the evening. Set routines, like playtime always followed by homework. And no screens until the weekend,
Markham also suggests going through little kids’ backpacks with them. Get them in the habit of organizing their papers, taking care of permission slips, and responding to client emails (wait — that’s you). All of this should minimize the drama they experience during the day. “When kids are anxious it scares us, so we escalate the drama. Our job is to lower that drama and be as calm as we can. Routines make anxious kids feel better,” she says.
Unless your routine includes running out the door every day screaming, “We’re late!” In that, case maybe work on something else.