Taming the Back-to-School Jitter Monster

Written by Dr. Jessica Borelli. First published August 11, 2017 on Huffington Post. 

It’s the first day of school and your son is misbehaving almost constantly, breaking rules he hasn’t bent for years. Just days ago he seemed fine, excited about a new backpack and seeing old friends. But now he’s melting down in the parking lot. What went wrong?

The onset of the new school year signals relief for parents everywhere, but for school-age children it spurs a rise in nervous energy that can manifest itself in a wide range of behavioral issues. Anxiety related to the start of a new school year can cause difficulty sleeping, nightmares, restlessness, irritability, picking or pulling of the skin and hair, acting out, eating more or less, and increased worries, even ones that seem unrelated to school. And that wild back-to-school jitter monster is unpredictable, leading children to experience a wide range of rapidly-shifting emotions – excitement and elation may turn to panic and despair on a dime. Need some tips for how to help your child manage this monster inside? Read on!

Follow your child’s lead. It’s extremely important to have open conversations regarding your child’s feelings about starting school, yet doing so can be tricky if the topic has unleashed a different type of monster before. Allow your child to bring up fears independently, or wait until there’s a quiet (and private) moment of the day to approach the topic. Children may not want to talk about their fears around older siblings, peers, or other adults. Once your child signals willingness to talk, it’s key to ask open-ended questions, acknowledge his fears, and listen without solving.

Prep for success. Help your child feel ready to take on the challenge of a new school year by offering to rehearse aspects of the first day with them. You may offer to help her pick out an outfit, or practice the walk from home, the bus, or the car into the classroom. You may even role-play saying hello to the new teacher and students, introducing silliness and levity into this game. Practicing anxiety-provoking behaviors helps children get used to completing these tasks even when they are worried, and it increases the likelihood they will feel confident doing them on the big day.

Review past successes. You and your child have both successfully conquered scary and challenging things before. You are both fear-fighting warriors! Your child completed her first day of school last year, and if it’s her first year at school, she has at least gone to the dentist or doctor despite feeling afraid. Your child’s confidence will rise when she’s reminded (in a cheerleading, not a critical, way) of the moments she felt afraid and then triumphed over that fear. If your child hasn’t experienced success overcoming his fears, you can tell him about some times when you felt afraid and conquered it. This will encourage him and help him feel understood.

Support your child’s independence. Elementary-aged kids have a healthy desire to do things on their own. Additionally, they may feel pressure from peers to demonstrate self-sufficiency more than the younger children. So always ask if your child wants help before providing it – this will give your child a sense of control, while letting her know you’re there and ready to provide help if she wants it.

Welcome your child back. Keep an open mind about how your child’s first day might go. If it’s a struggle, be waiting with open arms for him to share all of his feelings with you. Listen without offering ideas about how to fix the problem – advice can come later if necessary, after the tears are dry. Alternatively, your child’s day could have been a huge success, so be ready to relinquish your own jitter-monster and welcome your child back to you with excitement. Delight her joys, laugh about the silly moments, and talk about misconceptions you both had before the big day. If you need to let out a sigh of relief as you exhale your own worries, do so with someone other than your child.

After all is said and done, quietly put this memory of your child’s success (and your own!) in your back pocket so that you have it ready for next fall’s monster!

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