How can parents help soothe first-day jitters in their school-age kids?
I think it’s always helpful to prepare in advance. Touring the school before the school year begins and meeting your child’s teachers could help familiarize students with their surroundings once school starts. If your child is going to be attending a new school, you can try to connect them ahead of time with another kid or group of kids who’re going to be in the school. What’s more, getting your child acquainted with the physical sights and sounds and smells can help their body be less on guard when they enter this new environment.
Talk to your kids about what the routine will be like. If there’s a new schedule, go over what’s involved and discuss what classes they will be taking, so they can have some sense of knowing what’s to come. This helps with the unknown and the unpredictability of it all.
Finally, focus on the things that can be exciting about going back to school and starting a new year. This might be learning new things, getting new school supplies, new clothes, new books, and making new friends. I think it’s always good to focus on a child’s strengths and focus on the positive when facing an anxious situation.
What treatment is available to kids for whom these tactics don’t work well enough to offset their anxiety?
The type of therapy we recommend for youth with anxiety is called cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. It’s an evidence-based treatment that focuses on teaching youth strategies for managing anxiety and not avoiding situations that cause them to feel anxious.
One straightforward, yet effective, strategy is deep breathing. Deep breathing can be done anytime, anywhere by taking a few slow deep breaths to help to calm one’s body down and regulate the nervous system. Kids can practice it in the evening, in the morning before school, and in the classroom. It can also be helpful before taking tests.
The C, or the cognitive part of CBT, has to do with our thoughts and focusing on realistic thinking. This involves challenging the worries we might have — whether it’s some catastrophic thought or overestimating the chances that something bad might happen — and replacing them with more realistic thoughts and expectations. For example, if a child is worried about failing a test, being laughed at on the first day, or that something bad happened to their parent while they were at school, we ask them to estimate the actual probability of these events happening, or we have them reflect on past experiences to determine if this is a realistic or likely thought.
The most powerful method we encourage kids to do, the B, in behavior therapy, is what we call exposure therapy, which is not avoiding the people, places, or things that trigger anxiety. We teach kids that it’s OK to do something that makes you feel nervous, and that it is likely that the more times you try it, the easier it will get. Often, we can break situations down into smaller steps if needed, and then gather the evidence from each step that if you’ve tried something new or scary before and your worst fears did not come true, you can feel more confident that the next step will be OK as well. And maybe even rewarding or fun!