Behaviour & Emotions Health & Well-being

How to talk about: back-to-school anxiety

Back to school

For some kids, heading back to school is met with eager excitement. For others, it’s the source of much anticipation and dread. Just the thought of all that newness at once can throw some kids into a tailspin – a new class, a new classroom, new teachers, new friends, old friends, new subjects, new books – all of this together can feel quite overwhelming. As a parent, it’s often a full-time job numbing our own anxiety about sending our child off to school, let alone dealing with theirs.

I still remember those nervous butterflies in my tummy as I lay awake in bed the night before the new school year. Will the new teacher be nice or mean? Will there be friends in my class? Where will I sit for lunch? What if I miss the bus? What if I get lost? Will the work be too hard for me? Where will I go if I need help? How will I fit in?

What’s happening in the brain when we’re anxious?

When we don’t know what to expect from a new environment, it is totally understandable to feel a little anxious. Anxiety happens when our brains and bodies become really busy finding all the evidence to support the things that we worry about.

Our brain is so clever that if we ask it to, it can neatly line up all of our bad experiences from the past, and at the same time make up some new ones to go along with them. Most of the time this is very unhelpful because just about everything that we worry about is pointless.

She’ll be right, mate

Have you noticed that trying to soothe your child’s worry with a simple, “You will be fine” or “There is nothing to worry about” falls on deaf ears? This is because their brains have told them everything to the contrary.

As parents, we sometimes find ourselves in a kind of tug of war as our child convinces us of all the evidence they have to support their worry and we attempt to convince them of all the reasons that it will all be okay. Trying to convince a child that they needn’t worry just means the worry stays locked up inside them. It then often leaks out in other ways such as headaches, tears, sulking, stomach aches, perfectionism and anger.

Instead of, “You are over-thinking it” try, “Tell me about it”

When we dial down our kids’ worry with, “It will be okay”, we are hoping to make their worry smaller so that they won’t have to be miserable. However, as we push away their worries we are also leaving them to cope with their anxiety all alone. Being alone with anxiety is really scary for kids.

Instead of telling your child to stop worrying, try encouraging them to tell you more about their worry by asking, “Tell me about it”. It might feel strange, like by asking this you are potentially making the worry bigger but the opposite is true. When they can tell you all about their worry, it means they are no longer alone. Just by listening you are lightening their load with your understanding.

Instead of, “There is nothing to worry about” try, “That sounds scary”

When your child tells you all about their worry you will probably feel really tempted to interrupt with all the reasons why they don’t need to worry. You will feel the almost magnetic pull to leap in with suggestions about how to make the worry go away, perhaps even listing all the ways that the problem can be resolved. Instead, simply stop, breathe and calmly continue to listen. (Pause, Hold, Engage is a super handy tool to help adults and children process anxiety.)

Instead of, “It will be okay” try, “It makes sense that you feel worried”

Our urge to take the worry away for our kids is pretty strong. Most of the time we are in full fix-it mode because we love them and it’s difficult to see them suffer. If we are honest, it might feel like we have failed in some way when our child remains stuck in worry.

So suggesting that you ‘agree’ with the worry might sound totally bonkers. But try it. When you have heard their worry, let your child know that it makes sense to be anxious about those things, because they do sound scary.

You could even share some of your own stories about when you have felt the same way, like when you started a new job, or perhaps when you missed the bus as a child. Letting your child know that it’s understandable to feel worried means they don’t need to ‘worry about being worried’. It also makes them feel understood – Mum or Dad gets it.

Instead of, “Here – this is what you should do” try, “Okay, what shall we do about this?“
When a child is feeling alone and afraid, that little word ‘we’ feels like a lifeline.

When you have flushed out all the scary feelings by listening, your child will feel a whole lot more connected to you and the worry will seem less scary. You could even give the worry a name like ‘Mr Jitters’, so that you can continue to talk about it when it shows up. For example, “Sounds like Mr Jitters was a bit bossy today, was he?”

Worry only grows in isolation. It shrinks when we face it together.

When it feels like you have heard about most of the worry, try catching your child’s eye and asking: “So what are we going to do here?” Then wait. When a child is feeling alone and afraid, that little word ‘we’ feels like a lifeline. Pause for moment and let your child come up with some ideas about what might help with the worry. Agree with their ideas, and offer one or two more for their consideration. Give your child the power to choose which ideas to try. This way they are in the driver’s seat and you are their support person.

Kids who worry a lot are normally incredibly good at coming up with their own solutions if they have someone who stands with them and understands the scary feelings. Reassuring your child that you care for them, are prepared to listen to them and have felt similar feelings yourself all confirms that they are not alone. Worry only grows in isolation. It shrinks when we face it together. So next time, instead of saying ‘There is no need to worry’, make a cup of tea, sit at the end of your child’s bed and listen and help them find their plan.

Jo Batts

Jo Batts

For Jo, relationships are at the heart of whānau. She’s a counsellor, a strengths coach, a parent and a partner. Jo's down-to-earth approach helps people to develop the practical tools to build healthy relationships for everyday life.