Updated: Aug 29, 2021
GUEST POST by Dr. Caroline Buzamko, Licensed Psychologist & Clinical Director of Koru Family Psychology
Helping Kids Manage Worries with COVID-19 and More
Are your kids experiencing back to school anxiety? While some kids will feel excited to go back to school, many will experience some back-to-school jitters. Worrying about who their teacher will be, if their friends will be in their class, or if they will have someone to sit with at lunch. These worries are a normal part of growing up, whether they are starting kindergarten or moving into high school. Some though may be completely overwhelmed thinking about having to go back to school. To add to the back-to-school stress, we are in a unique situation this year with COVID-19 and there is a lot of anxiety for adults and kids alike.
Tips for Kids With Back to School Anxiety
Here are ten of the most important things you need to know to help kids manage back to school anxiety and make their transition as successful as possible.
1. Empathize and validate vs. minimize
COVID-19 has affected the world over, including our kids. Going back to school is going to raise a multitude of emotions from excitement to fear (which can often manifest as anger). To be helpful, we need to empathize, which means first listening to ensure they feel heard and understood. Even if they say the most irrational things, validate that their experience is true for them. When you do, they can get unstuck from worries and shift gears to cope with worries. Minimizing how they feel will only keep them stuck and, worse, teach them you do not care about how they feel.
2. Normalize vs. eliminate
As parents, we hate seeing our kids struggle. But is not helpful to try and eliminate any negative feelings our kids experience. Our kids are going to experience a myriad of situations throughout their lives that are going to cause grief, joy, disappointment, and anger. They need to learn to understand their feelings, how to express them, and how to manage them effectively to develop the self-confidence and resilience they need in life.
It is far better to normalize their emotions. Saying things like, “Of course you feel nervous going back to school! That makes sense – it has been six months since you have been there. That’s a long time!” Their worries make sense. Normalizing anxiety helps make it less scary.
3. Problem solve vs. reassure
After listening and validating, turn to problem solving. Avoid the trap of reassuring your kids that “everything is going to be okay.” Doing so negates all the validating you have just done, minimizes your child’s fears, makes anxiety worse, and creates dependency. Kids will constantly seek more and more reassurance rather than learning to cope with their anxiety themselves.
Your role is that of a supportive coach in which you can ask things like, “What can you do about that?” Or “What do you think is the best way to handle this situation?” Rather than creating dependency on us to help them out, they can start to develop their own brain connections to work through challenges themselves.
4. Allow them to self-soothe vs. tell them to calm
Similarly, kids need to learn to self-soothe versus us telling them how to calm down all the time. They will become dependent on you and never build the brain connections to learn how to do it effectively themselves. As they move into teen years, they turn to substances for comfort them, which can often persist into adulthood.
Now I am not saying do not ever jump in to support your kids! Yes, give them a hug when they are upset. What gets in the way is us talking too much. Talk less and touch more. Hold your kids as they cry. But keep quiet. And give them space rather than telling them what to do all the time.
5. Tolerate vs. comfort
No matter how much we try, we can never be 100% prepared for what does happen in any given situation. There are always going to be things we never thought about or that are out of our control. Same with life.
And, anxiety is still there – we can never make it go away completely. If we try to comfort our kids, their anxiety will be stronger. And they will easily get caught in the trap of rumination and seek more and more comfort. Kids need to learn to tolerate anxiety and the discomfort it brings. When they learn to tolerate it and sit with it, they realize that anxiety is temporary! This feeling will pass! And it was not that bad! And I can do it again! Kids who can acknowledge and tolerate anxiety when it shows up become stronger and more resilient over time.
6. Face anxiety vs. avoid it
Kids typically want to avoid anything that causes anxiety. Although escaping helps relieve worries in the moment, it only makes anxiety stronger. And makes it harder to overcome the next time. Kids will also develop anticipatory anxiety, in which they overestimate something bad is going to happen and misinterpret the situation even more out of proportion the next time.
7. Get Buy-in
Being brave can cause a lot of discomfort. Therefore, it is crucial that kids believe being brave is a good thing. Not just because we said so because the discomfort anxiety causes is not worth it. For some kids, the outcome of whatever it is they need to do is enough for them to be brave. For example, they are willing to be brave so that they can have a successful sleepover. Others might need a little extra incentive though. Perhaps going to school and introducing themselves to their teacher so they can then have a special playdate with a friend.
8. Get practicing!
To make the transition back to school as successful as possible, it is essential your kids start doing brave things every day now. They need as many opportunities as they can to develop confidence that they can handle life’s glitches. What are things they are avoiding now? What are things you are doing they could be doing for themselves? What are they worried about going back to school? Start practicing whatever you can. For example, if they have to walk to school on their own, have them practice now. If they must wake up on their own, have them practice using an alarm clock now (this is good for all kids to become more independent anyway).
9. Focus on excitement vs. worries
Our brain is wired to anticipate all the things that can go wrong, so it is easy to get stuck in “what if’s.” Focus on what kids can look forward to when they go back to school – there are a lot of things to get excited about. New school outfits. Seeing friends. Seeing favourite teachers. Have your kids start to identify things they can get excited about. You can also schedule things for them to look forward to – even a first day of school dinner celebration – to help build that excitement.
10. Be a positive role model
We are our kids’ greatest teachers. From the time they are born, our kids are always watching our reactions to various situations. And kids often develop anxiety after watching their parents’ own anxious behaviours. We need to model being brave, being flexible, and coping effectively when we are stressed or anxious. Doing so helps normalize anxiety because our kids realize they are not alone and helps them discover ways they can handle their own stressful situations effectively.
In front of your kids, whenever a stressful situation comes up, identify the problem, work to assess the situation in an objective and realistic way (since stress and worries like to take everything out of proportion), model your problem-solving process, and tell them how you are going to address the situation. Better yet, ask for their input for ideas – doing so will empower them while also building their problem-solving brain.
*Dr. Caroline Buzanko is a licensed psychologist and clinical director of Koru Family Psychology. She has worked with children and their families for over 20 years, with a focus on maximizing connection, confidence, and resilience. She facilitates groups and workshops across North America to promote health and well-being among families and is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Calgary. For more information visit: http://drcarolinebuzanko.com/
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