Back to School: How to Fight Your Kid's Anxiety

See what your kids may worry about, and what you can do to help.

Aug. 31, 2010 — -- Whether your kid is starting school or hitting junior high, heading back to school can be an intimidating process. Here are some challenges your kid is likely to face and what you can do to help them, based on their age.

Preschoolers and Kindergarten

How will I find my classroom?

If this is your child's first year of preschool or kindergarten, it's likely you'll be invited to bring your child the first day and that he or she will be escorted from place to place. But before you promise to be there, find out what the school policy is regarding drop-off and pickup and also ask them how to answer this question with specific information: "Your teacher, Miss Murphy, will take you and your buddies from room to room so you won't get lost."

What if I have to go potty?

Children who are recently potty trained or who still have occasional accidents often worry about embarrassing themselves. It's a great idea to pack an extra air of underpants and to reassure your child that a) the bathroom will be easy to find and b) if they don't make it in time, there's a clean pair of underpants in their backpack.

Will Mom be here to pick me up later?

Don't overpromise and under-deliver if you may not be the one to pick up your child. In fact, if there's any chance someone else – a babysitter or another relative – will be pinch-hitting, make that clear. Most important, no matter who is picking up your child, he or she MUST be on time. There's nothing more anxiety-provoking than being the last child waiting in the classroom for mom, dad, or another caregiver to arrive at the end of the day.

Elementary school

No one I know is in my class!

If it's true that your child's class list is devoid of best friends, you should first be empathic ("Yes, I know you would have loved to be in class with Joey") but then remind your child that they will have afterschool time with their friends and that they will have a chance to make new buddies. To help the latter promise along, see if you can arrange a couple of outings or dates before the start of school with a classmate your child knows even slightly.

What if I don't like my teacher?

You may want to answer this question with a question: "What do you think will happen if you don't like your teacher?" Sometimes what a child is really worried about is that the teacher won't like him or her -- again, what would they do in that situation? You can also explore what your child likes in his/her teachers -- what's their definition of likeable? If they say it's a teacher who only gives A's, you can remind them how good they feel when they work hard at something and then earn an A rather than do very little to earn a good mark. Most children will agree that succeeding when a teacher is challenging feels better than doing nothing to deserve an A.

Middle School and High School

What do I do if someone teases or bullies me?

We know that bullying is epidemic in today's schools, so this worry is understandable. If school starts and you find that your child is the victim of a bully, work with the school to solve this problem. Help your child stay connected with his or her friends and reiterate that he didn't do anything to deserve being bullied. Give your child a sense of empowerment by telling him that he doesn't just have to be a victim or bystander when he or another child is picked on. And explain to your child that bullies are often insecure losers who make themselves feel strong or big by picking on someone younger, smaller or just vulnerable. Most important, help your student find at least one adult to connect with at school. For more information, you might want to check out Dr. William Pollack's excellent advice -- CLICK HERE.

What if my classes are too hard or I have a ton of homework?

This is another good question to answer with a question: What would they do if they were struggling in a course? The answer should include meeting with their teacher, consulting a guidance counselor or talking to someone about getting some tutoring.

Homework should not be overwhelming if your child has some help with learning to pace and plan big assignments or tests. Look at the calendar together and mark when midterms and finals are likely to take place. Then keep the preceding weekend clear and don't make a lot of plans for the evenings before your child's big tests. If you have a middle schooler who is falling behind, get in touch with the teacher yourself and schedule a meeting to discuss the best approach for getting him or her back on track.

What if I can't open my locker?

It may sound like a trivial concern, but locker problems are one of a middle schooler's biggest fears. They worry they won't have time to visit their locker between classes. And if they do make it in time, what if they fumble the combination (especially in front of older, cooler students)? To help curb this anxiety, buy a combination lock a week or so before school starts and have them practice. And always have a hiding place where they can keep their combination in case they forget--maybe help them program the number somewhere in their cell phone or have them write it in their assignment planner or binder.

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