Question: My son is going into a new school with new kids/teachers and he’s told me he’s nervous about it, which I totally understand. But in past new situations like this – soccer, swim lessons – he’s basically shut down and refused to do anything. Do you have any ideas for what to say to him?
Answer: You are not alone! So many children (and their parents) are nervous about the first day of school. Whenever we aren’t sure what to expect, we can get a little anxious.
Many parents want to reassure their child that there is nothing to worry about. Larry Cohen, the author of The Opposite of Worry, says that if reassurance doesn’t work in 15 seconds, it’s not going to. Our brains can’t tell the difference between an actual threat, like a wild animal, or a perceived threat, like an unknown teacher or class. In both cases, the alarm in our brains is sounded. When our child’s brain is in an “alarmed” state, logical reassurance is not effective.
The best way to help our child out of an anxious state is to acknowledge their feelings, normalize their anxiety and teach them tools to “reset” the alarm in their brains. We can also help them feel more confident by giving them some strategies for problem-solving when school starts.
When your child expresses worries about the big day, empathize with them and tell them that it’s normal. Remember, you don’t have to agree to empathize! You can say, “The first day of school is feeling kind of scary, huh? I get it. Of course you’re a little worried. Everybody gets a little nervous when something new is happening.” When you acknowledge your child’s feelings and let them know that the feelings are normal, it begins to soothe them out of their anxious state.
Remind your child that they have been in new situations before and they have successfully managed. Anxiety makes us forget all the times we have been brave before. If your child typically gets nervous in new situations, make a “Brave Book” with photos to remind them of their successes. Remind them of the times when, for example, they started a new class they loved, or when they started school last year, it was a bit scary at first but then they had a great time!
Tell your child that even though they are nervous, you know they can handle it. Be confident and let some of that confidence rub off on your child. If you are wringing your hands, they will pick up on your anxiety.
Next, help your child understand what’s going on in their brain when they feel worried. Tell them that the emergency part of their brain is similar to a really sensitive smoke detector that goes off when the toast burns. When the smoke alarm goes off, we look around and realize that there is no fire. We open the window instead of calling 911. Tell your child that when they are feeling like it’s an emergency, they can tell their brain that it’s not an emergency. Give them phrases to “talk back” to the worry: “No thank you, Worry. I can handle this! It’s not an emergency.” (A great resource for more on this strategy is the book Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents by Lynn Lyons and Reid Wilson.)
This will not only help your child feel less anxious in the moment, but over time it will help them actually develop new neural pathways so their amygdala won’t be quite so reactive to a perceived threat.
If your child is afraid they will miss you, bridge the distance between you both. Give them a reminder of you to carry with them from when they say goodbye to when they will see you again. For example, you can use matching bracelets or a photo of your family in their backpack. Give them a promise of when you will see them again and what you will do: “After I pick you up at 4, we will go to the park before we go home,” or whatever your plans may be. This is more important than trying to get them excited about what they will do when they are away from you.
If they are nervous about meeting new people, practise with them. Play “First Day of School” and role-play meeting new people. You can also take some pressure off and let them know that it’s okay to just observe a bit while they get comfortable.
If you have a generally anxious child, use laughter to help release stored-up tension and stress they have in their bodies. Laughter releases dopamine and endorphins into the body. Dopamine makes us feel good and endorphins are powerful stress fighters. Regular laughter can “take the edge off” for your anxious child and significantly decrease their anxiety. Roughhousing is a great way to get your child laughing. (Not sure how? Google “roughhousing ideas” to get started.) Start every day with laughter to make the school transition easier.
Helping your child with these strategies will not only make the first day of school easier but will also help your child manage anxiety in the future. Worry is a part of life, but it doesn’t have to be insurmountable.
Sarah Rosensweet is a parenting coach who lives in Toronto with her husband and three kids, ages 12, 15 and 18.
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