Ask the Psychologist: Managing Back to School AnxietyFor our this series, we’re tapping into the expertise of Dr. Stephanie Smith. Dr. Smith is a mother, clinical psychologist, author of Dr. Stephanie. Each month, she’ll answer one question from fellow parents. Have a question centered around health, kids or food for Dr. Stephanie? Comment below and let us know!

We recently spoke with Dr. Stephanie on the Healthy Family Project podcast (listen to the episode here!) about the stress and anxiety that comes at the beginning of a new school year. Read on for tips from Dr. Stephanie on how to help your kids adjust to new routines, teachers and more.

First Day Jitters & New Routines

What are some tactics we as parents can use leading up to the first day of school? Kids are nervous to start a new year/new routine and parents are as well. Lazy days of summer where there’s no homework or after-school activities are about to end. I remember as a kid not even being able to sleep the night before the first day of school. And then, going to junior high and high school brought on so much anxiety for me. I was a mess. What can we do to help alleviate all of this madness for our families?

Like so many other areas of life, I think the key to managing back to school nerves is balance. What I mean by that is striking a balance between being prepared for the new school year, enjoying the last bits of summer and recognizing there will be speedbumps during the school year that we can’t anticipate or plan for.

Between back to school nights, orientations, school supply lists, the end of summer can easily be consumed by thoughts of school. In fact, for most us, being prepared for the future and having a sense of what’s to come is an important part of managing nervousness. For our kiddos, this might mean having all their school supplies in order, knowing how to work a locker and having a general sense of the school day schedule. These are all important things to have lined up before school starts.

Nerves and anxiety can get the best of us, however, we can’t let these preparations overrun our summer. The trick is to be prepared, but leave room for fun AND the unexpected that will undoubtedly occur once the school year starts.

Adjusting to New Teachers & Classrooms

From year to year students are faced with a new classroom and teacher with a different personality, teaching style, etc. What are your thoughts on helping our students adjust to new teachers each year?

We all know what it’s like to have a teacher, coach or boss that isn’t a great fit. Learning to cope with these differences is one of the important tasks of childhood. When we see our child struggling, it can be easy to jump in and “fix” the situation or commiserate with their frustrations. There might be times when these responses are appropriate, but more often it’s useful to help them identify ways they can advocate for themselves (“Have you considered asking the coach if you can play a different position?”). We can also help our kids build a sense of confidence by reminding them of other times they’ve struggled, but persevered (“Remember your math teacher in 3rd grade? She wasn’t your favorite at the beginning of the year, but you made it to the end of the year with flying colors!”).

It’s also important to remember that our attitude and opinions as parents rub off on our children. If we stay positive and confident about their abilities to manage the situation – they generally will, too. If, on the other hand, we join in the complaints about their less-than-favorite teacher, we run the risk of making a tough situation even worse.

Stress & Anxiety Around School Subjects

What about anxiety around a certain subject? My daughter is a theater girl. A performer, musician and she’s run into a few obstacles in the math department over the years. It breaks my heart that before school started this year, she was already doubting herself about math and preparing me that it’s going to be tough for her. I’ve worked over the years to help her understand that doing her best and giving 100% is a success, but she continues to have this stomach ache around math. What can I do?

This is such a common struggle! Why is math so hard?!? Of course for others, the difficult subject might be reading or history. Either way, the worry, frustrations, anger and tears come from the same place: a sense of hopelessness. As in:

“It doesn’t matter what I do, this (math, Spanish, music theory, P.E.) will always be hard”

One way we can help our kids manage these situations is to help them identify things they can do. For example:

  • Attend office/study hours with the math teacher. Not sure when those are? Call the school office or email the teacher and ask.
  • Encourage your child to talk to their teacher one on one and share their concerns/worries/fears about the subject and ask for their ideas.
  • Explore other resources for learning the material. For example, Khan Academy is a free, online resource that helps kids learn math (and other subjects, too!) up to the highest levels. A quick search on YouTube also came up with so many tutorials on basic algebra, I started having flashbacks to 9th grade!
  • Work hard, then take a break. Just like my tip about keeping back-to-school preparations in balance, keeping our schoolwork in balance is essential, too.

It’s important to note that these conversations are most effective during times of relative calm, and not in the midst of a math homework meltdown.

Lunchroom Stress

Do you ever hear from families about anxiety in the cafeteria or lunchroom? Maybe kids are worried that they’ll be made fun of for their healthy lunchbox with hummus and cucumbers when the other kiddos are chomping on cookies and potato chips. Or, what if they don’t have someone to sit with or aren’t able to start conversations. There’s a lot of potential for stress in the lunchroom, especially when kids have little time to eat their lunch. As a child, I received a reduced lunch and remember being embarrassed to use my reduced lunch card. That can be stressful for kids whose families are dealing with hardships at home, but they want to fit in with the others.

This is another aspect of school life that I hear a lot about in my practice! There are just so many facets to lunchtime, I think that’s why so many kids struggle with cafeteria worries. Money, food, friendships – there’s so much to juggle at lunchtime.

Sometimes a break from the chaos of the cafeteria just one or two days per week can make a significant difference in stress level. Be sure to enlist the help of the administrators, counselors and teachers at your child’s school to help make that happen. Schools often have wonderful opportunities for kids at lunchtime – you simply need to ask what’s available. These are some of the things I’ve seen:

  • Social group with the school counselor. Opportunity to meet and get to know other students who might have similar worries.
  • Lunch bunch with the principal. A time to get to know the principal – and for them to know you!
  • Volunteer opportunity with one of the teachers. Help out younger students or sort books in the library.