Back to School Anxiety

Back-to-school season can be, and usually is for most of us, an incredibly stressful time that seems to last for much too long, while also not lasting long enough. There are only so many hours in the day, and these hours quickly become crammed with teacher meetings, school registration, shopping for supplies, and schedule-creating. With the new school year upon us, both students and parents are struggling with the back-to-school jitters. Unsurprisingly, anxiety has been the cause of sports and other injuries in children, as well as motor vehicle accidents in adults.

This happens each and every year, but for some families there is no “getting used to it.” Or at least, it doesn’t feel like there is. And we don’t blame you. Back-to-school season is a frantic time! But how can you and your kids keep your heads on straight during the weeks leading up to the return of the school day? We know that stressing is normal, even expected, but there has to be some way to calm the nerves and tackle the beginning of the year with a clear mind and a more positive attitude. Between school, work, extracurricular activities, clubs and other school events that mark the end of summer, no wonder you may feel a bit overwhelmed. How is anybody supposed to manage all of that?

Well, take a step back and breathe. You’ve got this. Whether this is your family’s first year sending the kiddos off to school, or you’ve done this before, implementing the five tips below into your day will lighten the load and help you to breathe easier right from the center of this whirlwind of chaos.

1). Get a good night’s rest.

For many parents, a good night’s sleep is the most coveted of all luxuries. You might be sitting at your computer reading this and thinking “there’s no way that’s going to happen,” and we don’t blame you. Life with family is chaotic, filled with unpleasantly early mornings that bleed into unexpectedly late nights. But when this time of year rolls around, it is in everybody’s best interest to get some quality shut-eye.

Sleep is so important in helping us to cope with stress. When we don’t get enough of it, it’s easy to become irritable, irrational and inattentive-three things that you do not want to be. You may reach for a cup of coffee, but remember that coffee, energy drinks or other energy boosters are not adequate supplements for real sleep. Sugar and caffeine can only perk you up so much, and too much coffee can actually make your anxiety worse.

Is your child making it difficult for the whole family to sleep at night? Back-to-school time can really get a kid excited. They might not be able to sleep well the night before school starts, or they might end up falling asleep very late. We’ve all been there: too excited or nervous to sleep. But there are things that you, as a parent, can do and enforce to help your child achieve a decent bedtime the night before the first day of school:

  • All electronic entertainment with screens should be off ninety minutes before bedtime.
  • Some children sleep more comfortably with night lights and soft music that lulls them to sleep.
  • Offer them a glass of warm milk. This releases tryptophan, a naturally-occurring chemical that makes a person feel a bit more like sleeping.
  • Talk with them early in the evening or afternoon about their feelings regarding the first day of class. Getting things off of their chest could help your child to achieve a more restful sleep.

2). Be extra-aware of signs of anxiety.

Just like when adults feel anxious, children facing anxiety can also experience physical symptoms that are sure to get the first day started off on the wrong foot.

  • Tummy aches
  • Crying
  • Irritability
  • Avoidance/refusal to go to school

…are just some of the things that you might experience with your child on the first day, or even the night before. Many times, our children won’t tell us outright what’s troubling them. We have to dig around a bit, and ask them (sometimes more than once) what’s going on. The sooner you identify that your child is struggling with anxiety over school or anything else, the sooner you can lend a helpful hand in getting them past it.

Ask them how they are feeling and if there is anything that they want to talk about, or ask you about. Let them know that you’ll listen any time that they want to talk to you about their fears for the impending school year. Making sure that the lines of communication between you and your child are wide open will make them feel more comfortable in opening up. And once they do that, and you know what is on their mind, you can help them to feel better about what happens next.

Though children are known to exaggerate, don’t just brush off their feelings as exaggerations to get attention or to get out of school.

3). Deal with your own anxiety, too.

Yes, your child may experience some anxiety at the start of the new academic year. But they aren’t the only one who’s susceptible to feelings of nervousness, irritability or concern. Children pick up “vibes” from their parents to see how a situation should be handled; they’ll notice if you’re stressing. And if they notice, they may also become unnecessarily stressed out. If you do not take steps to handle your own anxiety, it could quickly become a household-wide problem that makes the beginning of school a painful and frustrating time for all.

Is this your first year dropping junior off at school? There’s no shame in getting emotional (really!), but it can be helpful to reach out to a more experienced parent who can help guide you through this new terrain. Connect with other parents that you meet at the school, your friends circle or other arms of your community. Many parents’ groups are accepting of others with open arms, and can give you numerous perspectives about how to handle your own situation.

Sometimes, back-to-school anxiety compounds already existing anxiety. Lots of parents struggle with conditions that already cause these feelings, or the school year brings about terrible spikes in anxiety that can make it difficult to function. If you are regularly having physical symptoms of stress and anxiety (like persistent stomach aches, headaches, and sweating) or find yourself just utterly unable to cope with the way that you feel, don’t be afraid to reach out for support.

Your network of friends and family is a great place to start, but realize that there are other resources out there too, to help you work toward better mental health during all times of the year, not just back-to-school season.

Taking a nice 20 minute walk with the kids after dinner or right after they go to bed is a great way to get the aerobic activity and de-stressing of the mind and body. Learning how to meditate has proven to benefit beyond crushing anxiety. Great focus, clarity and connection with self are among many amazing benefits to meditation. Talking to your nutritionist about your diet can make dramatic improvements to fighting anxiety.

4). Communicate with your child’s educators.

Kids spend almost as much of their lives at school as they do at home, and that means that their school environment will have a heavy hand to play in their overall development. If your child is already showing signs of anxiety as the school year approaches, it might be a good idea to bring the subject up to your child’s educators as early as possible.

While childhood educators, principles and other faculty members are trained to sight problems in a student’s behavior or demeanor, there are a lot of things that are easy to miss. When you are on the same page as one another, you can work together to combat the causes of your child’s anxiety. Encourage the teachers that your child sees to inform you of their progress. Arrange a plan, if you can, that entails progress reports for your child (even if it’s just a quick phone call home to let you know how your child is doing).

If it is your anxiety that is getting in the way, there’s no reason not to schedule a time to talk with your child’s teacher(s). This would be a great time to go over the class syllabus, plans for the school year, and ask any questions that are burning on the back of your mind. The more you know, the less you’ll feel like you have to worry.

5). Focus on the positive.

It might be hard to find the positives when you or your children are being burdened by back-to-school anxiety, but they are there if you’re willing to look. After a summer of having your child at home nearly 24/7, you might find yourself with some free time. This might be a good time to get pressing work or household matters taken care of, but those things can wait sometimes. Arrange some time, even if it’s just an hour or two a week, to spend with yourself while your child is at school. Pick up that book you’ve been meaning to finish. Call a friend you haven’t talked to in a while. Lie on the couch and watch bad daytime TV, knowing that you won’t have to change the channel because of little ones running into the room. Life is full of stress and responsibility. Take a break from it all every now and then by doing something that nurtures you and makes you feel happy.

At school, your child will probably meet new friends, join clubs or express interest in extracurricular activities. It can be a rocky start at the beginning of the year, but if you nourish these newfound interests your child will not focus so much on the worry that comes with it. Show interest in their interests and encourage them to pursue what will bring them joy.

Few yearly rituals are as trying as getting the kids ready to go back to school, but with these tips in mind and the support of family and your child’s school, you can-and will-get through it.

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