August 25, 2016

Knowledge is power in fighting back-to-school anxiety

As the first-day-of-school countdown winds down, knowledge is power — whether your child is entering kindergarten or a seasoned pro starting high school.

Knowing what's coming is the key to helping kids remain calm when heading back to school, says Marcia Slattery, MD, a UW Health child and adolescent psychiatrist and director of the UW Anxiety Disorders Program.

"To understand anxiety, you need to understand why it's there," Slattery says. "And often, it develops in situations where there's an unknown — when we don't know what's going to happen."

Uncertainty then generates "automatic thoughts," which often tend toward the catastrophic, or the worst-case scenario — many "what ifs." And when the calendar flips to back-to-school time, there can be many unknowns at any age and grade in school: Who's my teacher? Will he/she be mean? Which kids are going to be in my class? Am I going to be able to handle algebra?

"At each developmental stage, there are new worries," Slattery says. "There are a lot of unknowns at the start of a school year, and the anxiety bubbles up."

Establish routines

To burst that anxiety bubble, Slattery says establishing routines is huge.

"If the anxiety is developing from the unknowns, we want to decrease the unknowns," she explains. "We want to increase the predictability and the feeling that, 'I'm ready.'"

Routine is important for kids as it provides an anchor when other things may be in flux. So, while there may be uncertainty about teachers and classmates, kids will be comforted by predictability at home. Getting enough sleep at night is one of the most important ways to help you child navigate the next day, Slattery says. Keeping mealtimes as consistent as possible can help, too — and it's also a good time to talk with your child about what's on their minds that's worrying them.

Be supportive and objective

It's a natural response for parents to want to make their child's worries go away, and reassure them that things are going to be fine.

"But this is their world, and it's very real," Slattery says. "And we have to remember that worries are irrational. So, trying to reassure your child oftentimes doesn't get us anywhere."

That's because saying "everything will be fine" makes children feel like you're minimizing their concerns, or that you don't "get it," Slattery explains.

"So they actually start to be quiet and not tell you what's going on, thinking that you're not going to believe them, or that you're going to think, 'Oh, that's stupid.' Or that they shouldn't worry about it," Slattery adds.

Develop a plan, and practice it

Instead of minimizing a child's concerns, Slattery says parents should remember that it's important to be supportive and objective. When a child brings up a concern — like being worried about finding their classroom or not being able to open their locker — take a problem-solving approach with them.

"Listen, and let them tell you what their worries are," Slattery says. "And with each of those worries, develop a plan. Talk about it out loud. It also helps to write it down, so they can visually see it. And then, go through it. Practice it."

Slattery advises taking a sheet of paper and dividing it — one side is a column for worries; the other side is the columns for things your child could do if that worry happens (e.g., What if I can't open my locker; What if I can't find my next classroom and I'm late, etc.).

"Make it a positive experience emphasizing problem-solving and feeling capable vs. the actual event," Slattery says. "For some kids, reviewing the list each day can help them feel prepared, but don't over-focus on it."

This sort of problem-solving exercise helps kids go back to school more confidently, and avoid feeling like "there are a lot of things that are going to happen and I'm not going to know what to do," Slattery says.

If your child is very anxious, it may be helpful to designate a time each day to review the list or any other worries that come up.

"Then, use the rest of the day to focus on enjoyable things," Slattery adds.

She also advises developing a plan of what to do if your child starts feeling anxious or nervous at school — including taking deep breaths, and practicing who your child could seek out for help, and what to say. For younger kids, it may help to have a familiar object from home in their backpack, such as a small stuffed animal.

Exude calm

Meanwhile, keep in mind that if you're displaying your own parental anxiety about the start of school, your child is likely to pick up on it.

"Kids are like sponges," Slattery says. "So what we exude to them is important. Exude a confident and calm demeanor — 'We have a plan and you're ready!'"

If your child's anxiety persists, despite trying these approaches, it may indicate that your child has clinical anxiety. Talk with your child's primary care doctor, or other health care professionals with expertise in child and adolescent anxiety, Slattery advises.

"In many kids with clinical anxiety, it can go undetected, and the anxiety can impact them negatively in their learning, friendships and experiences," she says. "Treatments for anxiety are effective, and could make a big difference in your child's experiences and development, if indicated."