Seven Tips for Helping Your Child with Back-to-School Anxiety
By Chelsea Fielder-Jenks, MA, LPC | Sage Adolescent Program Therapist
With the start of a new school year, many students, ranging from pre-k to college, often begin to feel anxious. Going back-to-school often goes along with many stressors. Balancing schoolwork with extracurricular activities, exams, public speaking, making new friends, bullying, or making a big transition such as going from elementary schoolto middle school or from high school to college can be sources of stress and anxiety for many students.
It’s important to recognize that anxiety can be a normal, adaptive response. Anxiety about going back-to-school can be beneficial, as it can keep students alert and motivate them to do better. For example, anxiety about an upcoming test may cause some students to work harder in preparing for the exam. Despite some of the benefits of anxiety, many students may find their anxiety difficult to tolerate and need some additional support around this time of year.
Here are 7 tips for helping your child with back-to-school anxiety:
- Validate the anxiety. Hearing, “Don’t worry! Everything will be fine!” doesn’t really help anyone feel better when they’re anxious. One of the most helpful things to relieve your child’s back-to-school anxiety is to simply acknowledge it and the fact that their anxiety is real for them. This also opens up the line of communication, so your child feels safe sharing their fears in the future.
- Identify the specific sources of fear and anxiety. Ask, “What three things are you most worried about?” Making a specific request can help your child sort through a confusing range of fears and feelings that are the source of their anxiety. If your child is unable to name the things that are the most worrisome for them, have them tell you any three things, or the most recent three things.
- Focus on the positive. After acknowledging and identifying your child’s fears, have them focus on the positive by asking, “What three things are you most excited about?” Most students have things they honestly enjoy about school, but these positive feelings can often be outweighed by more negative feelings. Focusing on the positive brings the good things back into the spotlight.
- Practice makes permanence. Instead of, “practice makes perfect,” I like to say, “practice makes permanence,” and in this case you will be helping your child practice effective coping skills. Once the sources of your child’s back-to-school anxiety are identified, you can practice effective ways to deal with them through role-playing exercises. For example, you can discuss possible anxiety-provoking scenarios and play the part of your child while they play the part of the demanding teacher or bullying classmate, or vice-versa. Or give them a school agenda or calendar to help them practice time management, planning ahead, and balancing schoolwork with extracurricular activities. Don’t forget, you can model appropriate and realistic responses and coping techniques for your child. For example, paced breathing and balancing work and play.
- Be receptive. Keep the lines of communication open and let your child know that they can always talk to you, no matter what. Remember that you do not always have to have a solution to their problem. Sometimes just talking about things out loud with someone else can make problems seem less threatening. Having an open line of communication and building rapport with your child can also allow you to be more aware of a serious problem your child may be dealing with.
- Do not fear crying. Crying can be cathartic, as flushes out negative feelings and releases tension. Although it is difficult to see your child crying and your first instinct may be to fix their problem and help them stop as soon as possible, allowing them to cry often leads to a more receptive mood for talking and sharing. This does not mean that you shouldn’t provide a soothing and sympathetic presence for your child, but let the crying run its course.
- Know when to seek help. Back-to-school anxiety is normal, as most students experience it at one time or another. However, if your child experiences major changes in friendships, mood, sleep patterns, appetite, attitude and/or behavior it may be a sign of a more serious issue and your child may need professional help, such as a visit to the school counselor or finding a licensed therapist in your area.
Here’s to a great school year!
Chelsea Fielder-Jenks, LPC
Chelsea is a Licensed Professional Counselor in the state of Texas with a Master of Arts degree in Health Psychology and a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Psychology from Texas State University. She utilizes Cognitive Behavioral and Dialectical Behavioral Therapies and takes a holistic approach to helping others, which considers biological, psychological, environmental, and cultural aspects of their lives.
Chelsea has experience working with individuals, families, and groups at outpatient and inpatient levels of care. Her clinical experience has been in helping individuals with a wide range of issues, including anxiety, depression, substance use, eating disorders, self-harm behaviors, stress management, and more. Chelsea specializes in treating eating disorders and eating disorder dual diagnoses. She began her experience working with eating disorders as a Practicum Student Therapist at the Eating Disorder Center at San Antonio and Hill Country Recovery Center (HCRC). After earning her Masters degree, Chelsea was then a therapist at HCRC, where she conducted individual and family therapy and facilitated the Adolescent Intensive Outpatient Program for Eating Disorders. Chelsea also has experience working at Austin Oaks Hospital, where she has served as an inpatient and outpatient therapist and the Interim Director of Outpatient Services. At Sage, Chelsea facilitates the 7-week Adolescent Intensive Outpatient Program and Adolescent DBT Skills Group, and conducts individual and family therapy.
Chelsea is certified in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy Skills Training from Behavioral Tech, LLC. She is a member of the American Counseling Association and the Austin Eating Disorder Specialists group and an active supporter of the National Eating Disorder Association and the Binge Eating Disorder Association.