How to deal with your child's back-to-school anxiety
By Tralee Pierce, Globe and Mail - August 2012
When Jill Amery's son Ford started kindergarten last year, he spent weeks in tears. After the Vancouver mother tried every parenting trick in the book to help fix the situation, Hudson himself finally blurted out the truth.
"One day, he clung to me and said, 'I don't want to get lost!'" says Ms. Amery, the founder of the website Urbanmommies.com. Thinking on her feet, she found a company that made cool Velcro wristbands that conceal a slip of identification information and added ID tags to his backpack.
"It turned things around within a day. It gave him the confidence he needed," says Ms. Amery, who hopes to use her new-found wisdom as her second son, Hudson, enters kindergarten next week.
There's a reason why, even as adults, many of our worst nightmares continue to be set in airless classrooms or feature us naked and unprepared for exams: School is where a wide range of fears meet, mingle and multiply.
No matter what age, all kids can use a gentle check-in from their parents about any anxieties they may be feeling.
So as Sandra Mendlowitz, a psychologist in the anxiety program at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, says, "You want the child starting the year off in a confident manner."
The hallmark of anxiety is avoidance of the thing that is scaring us; for kids, that means they simply won't want to go to school. The most common way this manifest itself physically is a stomach ache, Dr. Mendlowitz sas. It's not fake, either; it's a real physiological response. "It starts the night before or the morning of as the stressor approaches. And if the child doesn't go to school, the stomach ache goes away."
To ease your kids' fears, experts suggest mapping out the routine, even walking the route to school a few times. Some teachers will have had open doors this week, but even if you missed that chance, visiting the school grounds can still be soothing.
If you've been the primary caregiver or seem to be more attached with your four-year-old , it may be clear that she is going to melt down as you try to peel her off you; send your spouse or an older sibling to walk to school with the child, Vancouver parenting speaker and author Kathy Lynn suggests.
And Dr. Mendlowitz says kids are never too young to learn simple deep-breathing techniques to calm themselves down.
You thought you were in the clear once your kids made it out of kindergarten alive? Transitions to a new school - especially giant high schools for Grade 9 - can be tough for other reasons, including fears around failure, bullying and hazing.
The anxiety of being at the bottom of the food chain can be paralyzing, Dr. Mendlowitz sas. It's not uncommon to speak to teens who have not visited their lockers for six months because they have forgotten the combination, she says. "They say, 'I don't know who to ask.' They're afraid to look stupid."
They are also in perhaps the toughest stage of human development, don't forget. It's an adolescent's job to reject his parents. But he, too, may beg to stay home one day, paralyzed by anxiety. You can help them best by not pointing out this disconnect.
"Listening is the most important skill for these older kids. You may think you know exactly what is bothering them, but you might be way off base," Ms. Lynn says.
And once the lines of communication are open, resist the urge to share your own anxieties about high school. "This is not the time to talk about drugs, sex or online porn," Ms. Lynn says.
Rule No. 1
Don't let them skip school. "Parents have to be firm," Dr. Mendlowitz says. Consider going to school the best way to conquer the fears. "Every day you do it, it becomes easier." Routine is critical for children of all ages. In this case, experts say, the goal is to make what was once scary totally boring and banal.
Then customize your approach
You know your children and what can work for them, Ms. Amery says. For her kids, books and role-playing are big - when the boys faced some recurring fears around monsters, she dug out books that used humour to dispel the fears, such as Go Away Big Green Monster. Art therapy was less successful. "If I get out paper and ask them to 'draw their anger' they look at me like I'm daft."
What about you?
Don't forget that your face is the ultimate mirror, Ms. Lynn says. Listen to your child's concerns, of course, but "don't be all weepy and sad yourself. Be pleased and excited for your child."
Others suggest telling your own stories about school jitters - complete, of course, with a happy ending.
When to seek help
How can you figure out whether your child's anxiety is within the normal range or if you should see a professional? Dr. Mendlowitz says it's handy to know the definition of a disorder as a constellation of symptoms that interfere with a child's ability to function.
The most common type of anxiety disorder is generalized anxiety disorder, in which children are often described as "worrywarts."
One lesser-known disorder, separation anxiety disorder, can affect teenagers who can't shed the fierce reluctance to leave a parent that is common among toddlers. It's the only anxiety disorder exclusive to childhood and the prevalence rate is about 4 per cent for school-aged children and 1.3 per cent of teens, Dr. Mendlowitz says.
Ten per cent of North American kids experience some form of clinical anxiety. "That's a large group," Dr. Mendlowitz says. "Larger than any other medical problem, but it's often overlooked."