Helping Your Child with ‘School Jitters’
Published: August 27, 2008 4:00 PM, North Shore Outlook
Updated: August 28, 2008 9:49 AM
In people’s lives, any kind of change, whether, good or bad, is unsettling and can cause anxiety. In the life of a child, going back to school is a big transition, so feeling anxious is normal. As a parent, there are a variety of ways to help your child deal with their anxiety about going to school.
Often, the act of facing the fear, solves the problem in and of itself. Usually when we worry, the scary things in our head are much worse than the reality. For a child, the simple act of getting ready for school, and then arriving at school, is a step by step way of accepting and overcoming what they are afraid of or worrying about. When your child does face their fear, make sure you help them celebrate it. Give positive comments, or have a special treat on hand or spend some special time with them. When you recognize their accomplishments, it helps children recognize them as well and sets a positive pattern for life.
If you know your child is particularly anxious in dealing with new situations, another technique is to explore their fear fantasy.
A week before school starts, ask your child “What’s your biggest worry about going back to school?” Often children who are attending a new school worry no one will talk to them or they will find it too hard to fit in. Other worries include, “No one will like me,” or “I always feel stupid at school.” Be a detective, and further challenge their answers to the above questions by asking them: “Prove to me that your statement is true?” or “Are you exaggerating?”
From their answers, you will be able to help your child state their worries or concerns in a more realistic way to help undo their negative way of thinking.
Writing out their thoughts about an event is another helpful way children can find relief from their worries. Simply ask them to write on one half of a piece of paper the answers to the following items: All the unhelpful things they are saying to themselves (negative thoughts), the consequences of these unhelpful things (negative feelings), their behaviour after saying these unhelpful things to themselves (their actions).
On the other half of the paper, write positive statements that challenge their negative thoughts (make them work hard on this step).
When you are done, ask what they are saying to themselves now. This step allows you both to hear if their feelings of anxiety have become less intense. Usually, exposing negative statements and replacing them with more positive statements makes the heart feel lighter and the nerves calmer. This exercise will help to identify your child’s irrational beliefs about themselves, and will help you the parent to be more in tune with your child’s perceptions and their self-esteem.
Young children’s anxiety is different, as are the techniques to address it, because of their age and how they understand the world. The goal is to get your child to talk about school rather than avoid their experience. Ask your child concrete questions like “Were any of the toys similar to the ones you have at home?” to help them find some commonalities between their home and their new environment. Avoid talking about whether the teacher was nice or if they met anyone new because meeting new people is scary for young children and could shut down your child. Try to get your child to share with you what is happening in their world so they can hear themselves feeling more comfortable in their new surroundings.
Another technique that helps young children relax is deep breathing. At bedtime, teach your child how to take a really big breath that will fill their belly and their chest. Get them to hold it for five seconds, and let out their air with a sound. Deep breathing is also helpful to do with your child on your way to school. They can imagine filling up a balloon with their breath and then letting it out with a silly noise, as a way to relax their muscles. Along with the deep breathing, ask your child to think of their favourite toy or family outing. By pairing a pleasant memory with the breathing exercise, children learn how to calm their nervous system and overcome their fears. This is a great skill children can use over and over in new situations.
For many young children, finding ways to help them take the good feelings of home life with them as they go out into the world helps them tolerate the time spent away from you. For example, weeks before school starts, talk about your love for your child and pair it with the idea of them getting older and being able to go on play dates, or to after school care, or time away at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Get them used to the idea that they will be spending time away from you, but do it against a positive background.
Reassure them that when you are not together, you always have them in your heart and this helps you keep them in your memory until you see them again.
Then help your child to also develop a memory about you. When going to school, give them a small picture of you in a locket or in their pocket.
Write a note or draw a picture for your child and put in with their snack or lunch.
Let them take a small favourite stuffed toy to keep in their backpack. These are a few of the various techniques available to help children make transitions. Providing children with these tools improves their quality of life because it decreases the amount of time they have to struggle with negative emotions.
Christine Kutzner, M.Ed. is a Registered Clinical Counsellor providing services to children, parents and families in North and West Vancouver. To inquire, contact Christine.
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