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How to Help Kids Navigate Back-to-School Anxiety

The other day, I was walking our dog and passed a couple standing at the bottom of their driveway. The dad had his hands in his pockets and was pacing in place. The mom didn’t take her eyes off the street. She was staring hard, waiting.

For more ideas for back-to-school anxiety:

It was the first day of school, and they were waiting for their son to arrive home. Waiting to see his face. Waiting to find out who was in his classes. Waiting to get his first impressions about his teachers. Waiting to know whether they could exhale that night.

The start of a school year is an exciting time of new beginnings. It is also an anxiety-filled time because of all of the unknowns. I felt for these parents, especially since so much of our calm reserve depends on how our children are doing.

The thing is that angst really is part of life. I don’t know any adult who goes a day without having to navigate something that provokes worry or concern or tension. If you think about it, our job as parents shouldn’t be to try to figure out how to remove the obstacles from our children’s daily existence. Instead, we should be helping them obtain the skills and strategies to cope with new and uncomfortable experiences like the beginning of school.

3 Ways to Come to Terms with Anxiety about School

1. Get the lay of the land

Sometimes, the best way to conquer our fears is to face the beast. So much of our worry centers around the unknown. Finding ways for kids to get the lay of the land ahead of time can be very soothing. When my own kids began middle school, we spent time at home learning the mysteries of the combination lock they used on their locker. Once they mastered that and received their schedules, we made our way to the school. We walked from class to class so that they could get a feel for where they would be going. Having a picture in their mind did wonders to dispel anxiety.

They still got a little lost, and they still had to adjust to new teachers and new classmates, but having a little sense of place enabled them to get through the first few days.

2. Be realistic

When my own kids worry, my first (and wrong) response is to tell them not to worry. I follow this very ineffective advice by saying that they are going to love AP U.S. History, that they will find people to have lunch with even though all of their friends have it at a different time, or that they will not get lost (see #1). This is a very bad idea.

I know very well that there will be struggles. I know that they will have FOMO when they talk to their friends in a different lunch period. Yet, I make it seem as if they will breeze through their days. When they don’t, they get even more upset and frustrated.

I certainly don’t recommend being a dream-killer. But I do think that a little bit of straight talk is in order. We should tell them that the first few days may be rough. Validate their emotions so they know that it is okay to not be euphoric. We should also remind them that they have survived every previous school year and that we have complete confidence that they will find their way through this one.

This strategy is also really important for the over-achievers in your life – those teens who have registered for a slew of AP classes, play three sports, tutor elementary students, conduct research at the local hospital, and work 10 hours a week. Whew! Having a very candid conversation – maybe even one that includes a daily planner so they can see how their hours will disappear before they can accomplish everything on their to-do list might help them make some choices that will ultimately allow them to keep their tanks full, to borrow a metaphor from Tori Cordiano, Ph.D.,a licensed clinical psychologist.

3. Let them make their own choices

Kids in high school have so many people telling them what to do: parents, counselors, coaches, friends. It’s no wonder they have so much anxiety. At the end of the day, they are the ones who have to get up every morning and attend school and whatever other activities or jobs that are on the calendar for the day. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve asked students who are miserable why they are taking a certain course and they tell me that someone told them they had to but they hate it. No wonder they’re stressed out and struggling.

My oldest son, for some reason unknown to me, opted to take AP Chemistry his junior year. He is not a science guy, but he wanted to take the course. I asked several times if he was sure and then left the decision in his hands.

For the first few weeks of school, he’d come home and stay up way too late doing homework. He also played soccer and often did not get home from games until after 10 p.m. I must say that he never complained. He figured that he had chosen this path and he was going to have to figure it out, and I respected him for it.

A month into the year, he came to me and asked me to sign the paperwork so that he could switch levels. He said that while he was doing well in the class, he was spending so much time on it that he was falling behind in his other classes, not getting enough rest, and feeling the need for a better balance. Again, he owned his choice. He learned more going through this experience than he ever would have if I had told him what class to take.

 Chances are excellent that your teen is going to have a year that includes some amazing, highlight-film, gram-worthy moments. But there will also be some agonizing slam-the-door, tear-inducing challenges as well. This duality is the essence of life. And the new school year is a great time to help them learn how to manage the highs as well as the lows and everything in between.

Jody Podl

Jody Podl is a teacher at Shaker Heights High School.