Back-to-School anxiety hits students of all ages. But you and your children don’t have to suffer in silence.
Dr. Victor Schwartz, associate professor of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine and Medical Director of The Jed Foundation, walks us through the roots of school anxiety, and what we can do to help students handle their fears.
Root of Anxiety: Until preschool, life has centered on home, parents or familiar caretakers. Then, bam! Young children have to negotiate interactions with strange teachers and other kids.
How to Help: First, stay calm because your anxiety is contagious. And prepare your child by arranging play dates away from home and even overnight stays with trusted friends and family. Let them know they’ll be OK, but in a matter-of-fact way that makes them think you really believe it.
Kindergarten 3rd Grade
Root of Anxiety: Can I live up to teachers’ expectations? Learn my multiplication tables? Handle homework?
How to Help: Here’s where you begin to teach your children the good study habits that will lead to school success. Don’t do homework for them, but help them discover how to get from point A to B; how to recover from mistakes; how to be persistent. Playing board and card games are good ways to teach these lessons indirectly.
4th – 6th Grade
Root of Anxiety: Schoolwork now centers around long-term projects, and school social life forms into cliques two scary propositions for many children.
How to Help: Before school starts, plan activities that stress persistence, organization and deferred gratification. Making model planes, ships and trains teach organization and tenacity. Studying an instrument teaches how to navigate short-term frustration for long-term gains. Even video games yes, video games — help kids persist until they get to the next level.
Root of Anxiety: It’s a wonder anyone makes it through these wonder years when romantic and sexual feelings begin to blossom, social competitiveness reaches fever pitch, and even thoughts about college and future success emerge.
How to Help: Be sensitive to the turmoil, and help kids find a range of pleasurable activities outside school that enable them to find success and forge friendships sports teams, community center groups; theater clubs. Share stories about your middle school struggles, but don’t give a happy, pat ending (which probably isn’t true). Kids see through that and turn off to future fables.
Root of Anxiety: High school students are battered at both ends raging hormones that feed charged emotional and sexual situations, and real concerns about their futures college, jobs, marriage. They’re bombarded by advertising that tells them they’re not good enough (that’s how you sell products), and by adults that pressure them to succeed. This is the age where depression, anxiety, food and obsessive disorders emerge.
How to Help: Try to find time family dinners, vacations, driving in the car to share your definition of success: hopefully, it’s not which designer bag you carry or elite college you attended. And recognize that your emotional state is catching, and try not to worry about the same things that are plaguing your kid.
Root of Anxiety: Separation anxiety emerges again as your freshman prepares for life away from home, maybe for the first time. New college students worry about fitting into a whole, new social world and failing academically. If they’re paying for their own education, financial worries may also keep them up at night.
How to Help: Make sure they leave for college knowing how to do their own laundry, handle a debit card, and whom to ask for help when they need it. Talk to them about the life/work balance, which they’ll have to navigate throughout their lives. And discuss practical things like food choices, sleep routines, and how drugs and alcohol never solve problems.
When It’s Time to Get Professional Help
Most back-to-school anxiety is normal and manageable. But sometimes fears yours and your kids’ take over.
Here’s when to seek professional help.
Anxiety is more intense than usual.
Anxiety doesn’t get better over time.
Anxiety interferes with eating and sleeping.
Activities that usually reduce stress, don’t work.