Managing Back To School What Ifs, Worries, and Uncertainties

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As a child and adolescent psychologist, I’m relishing the excitement of the summer season as the kids I work with tell me about their camps, vacations, days at the pool or beach, and freedom from homework and school. At the same time, August has arrived and that first day of the new school year is suddenly much closer than it was on July 31st.

The start of the new school year brings wonder and excitement for many kids as they embark on a new journey – new teachers, kids, schoolwork, even clothes, or perhaps a new school. With the new comes uncertainty, and it is perfectly normal for kids (and their parents!) to have some worries or “what ifs” before the big day. You may hear of few of these questions or statements…

  • “What will my new school be like? Will I make friends?”
  • “Who will I sit with at lunch? What if no one wants to play with me at recess?”
  • “What if the teacher doesn’t like me? Or is mean? Or gives too much homework?”
  • “What if I can’t keep up with the work? What if I fail?”

iStock - girl with back to school sign (2) These are just a few examples of the many types of concerns kids have about the new school year; and the types of worries vary depending on age, academic abilities, and many other factors. Some kids do not often verbalize their worries, but parents may notice more physical complaints or restlessness, irritability, changes in sleep or appetite, or tantrums and tears instead.

Along with the concerns that children typically have, parents can also have worries or fears about the return to school (e.g., bullying, allergies, learning difficulties, homework) and might not be sure how to manage these concerns. Parents of young children may worry about successfully separating or even being able to maintain gains in toilet training, while for parents of older children, the start of the school year may raise worries about their child’s future and success.

All of these worries, “what ifs”, and uncertainties can lead to children and parents feeling anxious or like they don’t have control over their circumstances. Here are some suggestions for helping to ease some of the concerns and cope with the worries that you and your child may have:

Get into the routine of school – early: Kids (and adults) cope best when they are rested and nutritiously fed. Have your kids adjust their bedtime and wake up time to the school schedule in the week or weeks leading up to the first day. Have your kids actively participate in the process of getting supplies, clothes, backpacks, and all needed items, and in organizing themselves.

Go through a dress rehearsal of the first day by traveling the route to school with your child, walking the route to her classroom and/or locker, and, if possible, having your child meet the teacher. Especially for new students, some schools organize orientation or open house days prior to the first day of school for the purpose of easing fears and promoting a sense of belonging.

Don’t just reassure… problem solve: When kids are anxious, they seek reassurance from their parents that everything will be OK in order to decrease their worries. The catch is that offering reassurance is only a temporary fix – the anxiety often quickly returns. Try to avoid simple reassuring statements such as “Don’t worry” or “You’ll be fine” or “You’ll figure it out.” Instead, help your child to acknowledge the specific worries and feelings he is having, and talk with him about how he may address the worry or solve the specific problem. You can even role-play with your child to expose him to the concern more directly.

Re-frame the negative: It’s human nature to focus on the negative when there are also so many positive aspects of a situation. Acknowledge the worries and fears your child is having, but also help her to acknowledge the potential positive aspects of starting a new school year. “Yes, having a new teacher can be scary, but let’s think about all of the new things you can learn from her.”

Manage your own worries: Kids look to their parents to see how anxious they should be in a given situation. Make sure to acknowledge your own worries and fears, and try to problem solve so that you are modeling calm and confidence. For example, if you are unfamiliar with your child’s teacher or have concerns about how the teacher will manage your child in the classroom, try to contact the teacher before the year starts to address your child’s needs.

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Jill M. Emanuele, PhD is a clinical psychologist with a breadth of experience in the evaluation and treatment of children and adolescents with mood and anxiety disorders. Dr. Emanuele has brought expertise in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and family therapy to her work with diverse populations of children, adolescents, and their families, in a multitude of treatment settings. Dr. Emanuele earned her doctorate in clinical psychology from George Mason University, and completed her predoctoral internship and postdoctoral fellowship, both in child and adolescent psychology, at Long Island Jewish Medical Center (LIJ). Dr. Emanuele has held an academic appointment as an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine since 2004. Dr. Emanuele is a member of the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies and the American Psychological Association.

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