How to Help an Anxious Child Go Back To School

Anxiety About Going Back To School

Going back to school this fall is a loaded endeavor with stress and anxiety flowing through the air for the kids and the grown ups who are caring for them. 

Is my child ready? Are they behind, and if so behind what? Will things be “normal” and what is normal? Will my child have friends and feel less stress and anxiety? Will they get in trouble at school? And children have their own anxieties around school too. Some they share and some not. There are so many “What ifs”. One child recently said to me, “What if I am asked to read, I mess up and everyone laughs at me?” We can’t promise that won’t happen. But what can we do?

What This Year Brings

While many parents cannot wait for kids to be back to school, there is a lot of anxiety around it too, and not just about COVID.This past year was not as “normal” as we had hoped. With the staffing shortages, increase in challenging behaviors, variability in readiness, and continuing expectations for teachers, children and parents, the stress is high. If you or your child feels anxious, you are not alone. Parents who want to know how to help an anxious child, also need to know how to manage their own stress and anxiety. 

Meeting a Core Foundational Need

As an over 30 year educator, parent, administrator and consultant, this is on my mind as parents and teachers share their feelings and worries. I don’t have all of the answers. But I am clear on one thing:  A core human need to be understood is foundational. And we have to start there. That feels huge right now. 

It feels as if there is not enough room for all of the feelings in the world. For the past few years now,  we have  missed many opportunities to connect, and feel heard, due to isolation and also due to competing needs. You know what it feels like when you go through something hard, and your friend, partner or colleague can step in and listen. They empathize. Maybe they offer reassurance that you were not too hard on your son, or that you did all you could for a family member. Its very calming and connecting.  And we also know what it feels like when we can step in for others. This reciprocity and feeling understood by one another is needed for any quality relationship. 

However, It's very difficult when you both are going through something hard at the same time. It can create disconnection in the relationship.This happens with our children too. If we are very stressed about a problem, we are less likely to notice or understand their perspective. It's human. But ideally, our stress goes down and we have an opportunity to reconnect, to understand and maybe even share that we are sorry we missed it before.

Why Adults are Struggling to Meet the Needs of Children

Currently anxiety is very high all around us. Many people…caregivers, parents, children, teachers and administrators are walking around with many stressors and worries getting in the way. When those around us are under stress, we might not feel heard. It’s difficult to understand another until we ourselves feel understood. So, when you want to help an anxious child, you also need to address your own needs and feelings. Find people who listen to you, who help you feel understood too. When you can’t find anyone, sometimes simply saying out loud or writing how you feel can offer some relief. And then you are more likely to be able to help your anxious child. You’ve likely heard that on a plane you should put your oxygen mask on first and then your child’s. Because if you can’t breathe, you can’t help your child. This is true with stress and anxiety. And we all have been through alot. 

Barriers to Feeling Understood and 3 things you can do

Consider all of the experiences we’ve each had.  I lost my dad in the middle of this, and the ways in which we cared for him were so different as we managed covid. This tragic loss was experienced without the big funeral where his friends would have told funny stories. Even my immediate family gathered outside and did not hug. I did not talk about it each day with my friends at work. There were also good things too. I helped to develop an amazing online course that I feel so good about. My husband learned to cook. The thing is, I have a lot of stories to tell, small ones and big important ones that I need to say. And so do all of the teachers and parents and kids. Some kids lost a family member, moved, missed a lot of school, had to take care of siblings, experienced isolation or loss or financial instability. Even their positive experiences, new babies, trips, accomplishments may not have been shared in the same way.  Everyone went back last year and there were high levels of challenging behaviors, children who did not WANT to be in school, and many teachers quit. Many new teachers will be walking into schools this year very unsure of what the year brings.  And I can say that very few people are feeling completely understood right now. Educators share that they feel the parents don’t understand what they have to do. Parents have shared that teachers don’t understand the pressure they experience. When you think of what that means for children feeling understood, the stakes are high. When a child feels understood, they are more likely to learn from the adult teaching them, to feel safe and connected enough to learn and grow, and when they feel understood, their stress hormones are blocked. In other words, feeling understood is necessary to reduce stress, connect, feel safe, learn and grow. There are three things you CAN DO to help your anxious child. 

How can a parent help their anxious child feel heard and understood? 

Listen. 

I mean try and let go of an agenda, judgements, “me too” and anything else getting in the way.Yes, it’s super hard. Listen with your heart. What are they saying and what do they need? Whether a child is nervous about school, feeling left out or concerned about fairness, listen. Don’t jump in and solve, dismiss or explain. Listen.  It's difficult to listen when time does not allow  expression or with too many agendas.  So leave time for drawing, for pretending, for playing, for acting out, for talking….and learn how to listen, and step in….because, the thing is…without feeling heard, it's really hard to get much done.

Communicate Understanding

Once we listen, really listen, you need to communicate your understanding of their feelings and perspectives as they are without judgement. Because we don’t feel understood when someone says, “I understand”. And we certainly don’t feel understood when someone responds with a lesson, or even lots of questions. 

 Avoid starting with “at least”....At least you are not sick. At least you are back now...at least you have a friend…..

Resist the temptation to put a positive spin on it. If your child is feeling anxious when they start school, acting out, or withdrawing or seemingly upset about doing things that you think they should love,  do NOT remind them how lucky they are to have a chance to go to school, to play soccer, to join this club, to be invited to a party. They know. We just want kids to be excited again. Before you can help them do this, meet their most basic need for connection by showing them understanding of their feelings and perspectives. 

Accept the feelings, even the hard ones.  Show your acceptance by reflecting those feelings back… which is a lot more effective than telling them its okay to be nervous. Show it by saying things like: “You are not sure how school will go this year.” “You are tired of worrying about who has covid at school.” “ You don’t feel very connected to your friends.” “You want to join a team, and you are also not sure you do” “You are worried about the work”, “You are going to miss me.”

Leave Space for yourself and other adults to feel heard too

The adults need this too. If parents, caregivers and teachers  don’t feel understood, it is hard to do it for kids. Leave time, even just short amounts to share your stories, and step in for each other. Give each other the gift of being understood without the positive spin or the comparisons. This has not been easy. We are all hanging on and holding our breath more than we even realize. 

You might be in a hurry to “get back to normal”, to “catch up”,  but if you try to do all that when nobody is feeling understood, I promise you you will spend more time trying get everyone on board, than if you first understood and THEN tried to help children take on challenges and new things. When someone feels understood, they feel connected, stress hormones are blocked, and they can think, listen and be creative again. 

In Summary

So, to help an anxious child, and you feel like you cannot fix everything to make it right…Listen, with no other agenda, Communicate your understanding with no judgment, and create the space for yourself and other adults to be heard too. So, we can show up for children and give them what they need most. If you would like to learn more about how to lower stress and anxiety for your child, and interrupt the cycle of anxiety, look for our new course: Building Confidence, Trust, and Hope: Three things you can do to help an anxious child, here. 

 

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