August 30, 2011
Back to School: Calming Kids Fears
Icon By Anne Leedom

Heading back to school is an experience filled with a mix of so many changes...being the new kid or entering into a new dynamic with kids your child has been with their entire life....anxiety is the number one emotion as teens work on navigating these new and uncharted waters.

Here are tips by parenting expert Dr. Michele Borba to ease their transition and make the start of the new school year smoother and as stress-free as possible.

STEP 1: Listen to Your Child's Worries and Anticipate Concerns
Make sure you set aside time to chat with your child. Convey that worries are normal - other kids have the same back to school anxiety pangs and they usually fade away in a few days. You might share your own back to school worries from "years" ago. Most typical back to school worries involve these issues: "Will I be safe? ...."Will I fit in (and be accepted and find friends)?... "Will I be capable and be able to do the work?"...."Will the teacher be nice and not yell or be too hard?"

* Don't trivialize the fear. Keep in mind that as much as your child's worries may seem unrealistic, they are real to him. So don't try to talk your child out of his concerns. Instead, thank him for sharing.
* Find a book to help younger kids open up a dialogue. Read a book to help your child open up her feelings and learn others have similar fears.
* Offer solutions for simpler problems. Spend time each day talking over what happened at school and what your child's concerns are. Strategize ways to navigate the new situations they are dealing with. The solutions are important but the crucial factor is they know they can talk to you.
* Share "bigger worries" with the teacher. A parent's military deployment, a job loss, an illness, divorce or a traumatic experience with a bully are the types of issues that could impact your child's learning. Make an appointment to share the information with the counselor and teacher so they can offer support. You'll be much more effective in easing your child's stress by working together as a team.

STEP 2. Help Children Learn School Routines and the Lay of the Land
Boosting your child's comfort zone about a new location and their peers helps reduce jitters. One hint: Don't over-hype the new school or teacher. "What a gorgeous campus!" or "You're going to be soooooo happy here!" type of comments don't ease jitters. In fact, they can backfire and cause more anxiety. So don't build up false expectations so much as to disappoint your child if things fall short of your build-up. Keep your excitement to yourself.

Here are ways to help your child feel more secure about a new school or transition:

* Visit the school. A few days before the big send off, take your child for a tour so he can find key places like his classroom, playground, school office, cafeteria, water fountain, lockers, and restroom. A large campus can be intimidating even to an adolescent-especially if your teen has multiple classes in different locations so anticipate or identify those spots on his "worry list" and make sure he visits those.
* Take an online tour. Many schools have websites that give online tours that show not only the school layout but also what the students look and dress like.
* Print a map and schedule. Obtain a map of the school (go online) and print out his class schedule. Then help your child walk that campus until he feels secure.
* Get a school handbook. The more your child is aware of school rules and rituals the more comfortable he'll be. Check the school's website or stop by the school or district office and ask for a school handbook. Then review those rules and schedule with your child. In particular, find out the dress code, bell schedule, school rules as well as the name of the mascot, school motto and colors, and any song.
* Find a buddy and teach how to "fit in." Knowing just one classmate can minimize first day jitters so help your kid learn the name of at least one peer. The two kids don't have to become soul mates - just acquaintances!

STEP 3. Prepare for Separation for Younger or More Anxious Child
Rehearsing a goodbye can help a younger or more sensitive child feel more secure when the big moment really comes. Doing so also helps reduce anxiety so the child knows what to expect.

Ease the back to school fears by slowly stretching your child's "security" levels. Slowly increase the number of caregivers to second circle (teacher, friends) and finally outer circle (strangers). Gradually stretch separation times.

Find people your child trusts - a babysitter, relative, or friends to be watch your child. Then "come and go" to help your child build confidence, recognize he can survive without you and you do come back.

Here are a few ways that might help (depending on the age of your child).

* Create a special goodbye. Practice a special private "goodbye" just between the two of you like a secret handshake or special kiss to help your child start to pull away. Then tell him you'll be using that same goodbye each time you drop him off.
* Teach coping skills. Studies at the University of Minnesota found when kids feel they have some control over what's happening, anxieties decrease and smooth the transition. 
* Teach: "Talk back to the worry." Researchers at the University of McGuill found teaching a child to "talk to back to the fear" helps reduce anxiety. It makes the child feel like she is in charge of the worry and not the other way around. The trick is to have your child practice telling herself she'll be okay to build up confidence.

STEP 4. Have a Positive Sendoff
A kid's anxiety increases if you make too big of a deal about leaving or draw out the goodbye. The key is to establish a consistent pattern of goodbye so your child knows what ritual to expect, realizes she can make it through the time apart, and that you really will return.

Here are a few things to help:

* Point him to "The first thing." Not knowing what to do or where to go upon arriving at a new scene increases anxiety. So offer "first thing" suggestions.
For a young child: Point her towards an activity she enjoys-like a puzzle or blocks.
For an older child: Suggest he go to the basketball court that he enjoys or meet up with that acquaintance he met at the park near the water fountain.
* Say goodbye and don't linger. Don't draw out the goodbye...doing so actually increases anxiety. A simple and matter-of-fact: "See you soon! and then a better approach. A matter-of-fact: "See you soon" is better than long-drawn out ones. Don't sneak!
* Stay calm and put on a happy face. Your child takes cues from you, so be cool to help show confidence in your child. Hold back those tears!
* Be on time. Be sure you or your designated caregiver picks your child up when you said and at the exact spot you prearranged. In fact, be there five minutes earlier for the pickup will eliminate the agonizing moments a child has waiting if you're late. If he cries when you pick him take it as a compliment! It usually means he's delighted to see you-not that he hates school.
* Be patient but know when to worry. Adjustment may take from a day to several weeks, so be patient. For most kids separation anxieties are normal and will pass. The key is to watch for a gradual increase in confidence and a diminishment of school and separation worries. If the anxiety continues or increases, check in with the teacher or counselor to see if they have suggestions to help your child adjust.

Adjustment may take from a day to several weeks, so be patient. Learning to say good-bye is just one more part of growing up. Helping your child learn to separate and handle life confidently without you is just one more important developmental milestone. So hang in there! Happy back to school!

Tips from this blog were adapted from the chapter, "Stressed" in the book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries by Michele Borba.  For more information on parenting solutions visit  Permission granted for use on

Posted by Staff at 12:00 AM