Back to School Stress

by Kelli Donohue, Ph.D. 

It’s Back to School not Back to Stress!

Whether your child is beginning a new school or returning to a previously attended school, the back to school process can be difficult and anxiety provoking.  Children and parents are trying to get back into a routine after a long summer of vacations, camps, and trips to the beach; and this can be overwhelming for everyone.  Even the most carefree and relaxed children and parents experience some level of back-to-school stress.  This blog is meant to prepare parents for the months ahead by providing tips and advice for preventing and combating school anxiety in their children.

Webster’s New World Dictionary and Thesaurus (2002) defines anxiety as: 1: Worry or uneasiness about what may happen, 2: an eager but uneasy desire.  Children are faced with a great deal of uncertainties at the beginning of the school year (e.g. will I like my new teachers, will the work be too hard, will I have enough time to do what is expected of me, etc.) which makes it an anxiety provoking time.  What can parents do to relieve some of that anxiety and make the school year more manageable and enjoyable for their children?

  1. Communicate with your child: It is important for parents to talk with their children about their thoughts and feelings.  Ginott (1965), in his classic book Between Parent and Child, explained that communication with children requires (a) messages that maintain the child’s and the parent’s self-respect; and (b) that statements of understanding should always come before statements of advice and instruction.  Parents need to ask their children about their day including any feelings they experienced and empathize with their children.  This helps children to feel supported, which makes them more likely to share their feelings in the future.   A nice idea is to start a daily chat (after school or during dinner) in which everyone talks about the best and worst part of their day.  This opens up the lines of communication and helps to give parents a better idea of their children’s’ successes and struggles. 
  2. Set up a Routine:  Establishing routines at the start of the school year can help both parents and children adjust to school year responsibilities.  Your child’s school day is structured and they have both daily and weekly school routines.  Setting up routines at home helps to maintain stability and eliminate anxiety.  Parents should work with their children to set up daily schedules which include: homework time, dinner, preparing for the following day (e.g. setting alarm clocks, and picking out clothes to the next day), definite bedtimes, and morning activities.   Parents should also designate specific homework areas and spaces for school bags and lunch boxes as part of the routine (Feinberg, T. & Cowan, K.C., 2004). 
  3.  Remain calm and positive: Parent’s attitude and actions have a strong influence on children’s attitude, behavior, and feelings.  Children look to their parents to help them to make sense of different situations and they often mimic their parents’ feelings.  When parents are anxious that typically enhances their children’s’ anxiety and when parents are calm and positive children also tend to calm down. 

If parents apply these concepts, they will improve their relationships with their children and help to make their children’s lives easier.  Unfortunately there are stressors in the school environment that parents cannot always control that also cause children anxiety (e.g. excessive assignments, bullies, test pressures, and social difficulties).  When your child is faced with such stressors that increase their anxiety it is important for parents to keep talking to and supporting their children.  You can also introduce them to some anxiety reducing activities such as:

  1. Deep breathing / Muscle Relaxation
  2. Meditating / Praying
  3. Listening to relaxing music, or your favorite music
  4.  Exercising (stretch, walk, run, swim, bike)
  5. Playing with your pet
  6. Closing your eyes and recalling a fond memory
  7. Developing a sense of humor
  8. Expressing feelings
  9. Eating healthy food
  10. Making a list to help yourself get organized
  11. Taking a warm bath
  12. Making time to have fun

(Allen, J.S. & Klein, R.J., 1996)

These strategies and tips should help to get the school year off to a great start, but they can be used whenever you are experiencing anxious feelings.  So keep them in mind, share them with your family and friends, and have a STRESS-FREE school year!         

References:   

Allen, J.S., & Klein, R.J. (1996). Ready, Set, Relax. Watertown, WI: Inner Coaching.

Feinberg, T., & Cowan, K.C. (2004).  Back to school transitions: Tips for parents. Retrieved September 30, 2012 from National Association of School Psychologists website: http://www.nasponline.org/resources/home_school/b2shandout.aspx

Ginott, H. G. (1965). Between Parent and Child. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Webster’s New World Dictionary and Thesaurus (2nd ed.). (2002). New York: Hungry Minds.