Ways To Help Cope With Back-To-School Anxiety

It is perfectly normal for children to feel normal before going back to school, especially if they are starting in a new school. This can be a worrying and uncertain time for children, for whom school makes up a significant portion of their life. Usually, feelings about anxiety about going back to school will really begin to set in in the weeks leading up to the start date, and while these feelings may quickly dissipate for some children, others may harbour these feelings for some time. Here, we’re going to look at some of the ways you can help your child cope with back-to-school anxiety.

Different children will manifest their anxiety in different ways. Some may become quiet and withdrawn, while others may throw tantrums or cry. In some cases, a child may even complain of symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches, and while it is understandable that some parents may be skeptical about these symptoms, they can be a genuine result of anxiety. Regardless of how your child’s behaviour is affected by their anxiety, the most important step in helping them overcome it is to make sure that they go to school. Although you may be tempted to let them stay home for a few extra days, doing so not only takes away their chance to confront that fear, but also gives the fear a certain validation that may make it harder to overcome later.

In order to most effectively help your child cope with anxiety, it is worth understanding Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This is a psychological theory that uses a five-tiered pyramid to divide our needs into categories, starting with physiological needs at the bottom, followed by safety, belongingness & love, esteem, and self-actualization. According to this theory, in order for a person to be truly happy, the needs at the bottom must be met before the needs at the top. This means the first step in helping your child overcome their anxiety is to make sure that they are getting enough sleep, a proper diet, and clothes that will keep them sufficiently dry/warm. When these needs have been met, you can move on to the next stages.

For the other stages in the pyramid, it is very important for parents to provide an empathetic ear to the child. If you talk to your child about what they are afraid of, you’ll often find that their fears correlate to the hierarchy of needs. With the next tier being safety/security, you may find that your child is afraid of being bullied, or afraid of one child in particular. Listen to their fears, discuss how they might react to various situations, and reassure them that you, the teacher, and the school will not tolerate bullying.

The next tier is the need for a sense of belonging and love, which will usually translate into the desire to make friends. This is an extremely common worry in children, and while most children will find that their fears were unfounded, some genuinely have more trouble making friends than others. Either way, you should approach this by explaining to them not just how to make friends, but why people become and stay friends. Children can be very self-centred in their thinking, and not all realise instinctively that friendships need to be cultivated and based on a give-and-take relationship. If your child does not like to share, tells on other kids, or says mean things, you need to explain to them that this will drive other people away. Explaining friendships to a child not only alleviates the fear by removing some of the unknown factor, but also gives them concrete steps they can take towards a solution.

The next tier is esteem, which is the stage where we hope to feel a sense of accomplishment. This is related to the kind of grades they get, how they fare in P.E., and other projects like artwork. They may be afraid of scoring worse than their peers, being given out to by the teacher, or about letting you down. Talk to the child to identify what exactly it is that they are afraid of, and you can come up with a solution together, such as joining a homework club, or practicing their chosen sport in the garden each evening.

The final tier in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is self-actualization, which describes our desire to reach our full potential and feel as if we have a purpose in life. It would be very unusual for a child, especially a young child, to be struggling with deep-rooted fears of self-actualization, although it is not completely unheard of. While it is not likely that this would be causing your child’s anxiety, it is still worth talking through, as it could signal a much deeper problem, such as childhood depression. If your child does seem to have fears that you believe to be unusually philosophical or abstract for someone of their age, you may want to take them to see a child psychologist.

Anxiety about starting or returning to school is very common, and is usually nothing to be overly concerned about. In many cases, talking things through with your child will be be enough to give them sufficient support to get over the initial hump. Others may take a few weeks or even longer to adjust, but will get there in the end. In the rare cases that a child has attempted but been unable to adjust, it may be necessary for teachers, parents, and the guidance counsellor to meet up and examine the specifics of the child’s situation, and work together to create a path forward that works for that child.

Julie Farrar