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Letter to the Editor: Facing Back-to-School Jitters

Some advice from a local preschool director.

It’s that time of year again… Back-to-school time, which means it’s back to schedules, homework, old friendships and new, peer pressure, social expectations, academic stress... the list goes on.  Questions abound about who will be my friends, what will my teachers be like, will I be liked and by whom?  All kinds of worries, anxieties and fears sprout about transitioning back to school – enough to make straight hair curl!  These are not only the worries of kids, but also of their parents, as both get ready to reenter the world of learning, discovery, tears and triumphs.

What is the basis that creates these transitional worries and anxieties? 

CHANGE.

Change:  a simple concept with complex implications. Change is the only thing that is constant in life, yet it is so difficult to digest.  It’s the discomfort in the uncertainty of what lies ahead.  Moving forward involves both a gain of the acceptance of the unknown and a loss of the familiar.  These two contrasting experiences often result in confusion – a mixture of opposing feelings that can involve excitement and joy along with anxiety and fear at the same time.

So how do we help our children feel good about themselves and learn to manage and cope with the myriad of feelings that accompany change?  And specifically, how do we help ease their transition back to the more rigorous expectations and structure that the school year brings – demands placed on them by not only parents, teachers and peers but also by themselves?  The answer is by accepting and acknowledging their feelings!  Ultimately, children need to know that their feelings, all of their feelings, are important and accepted. 

Encouraging expression of feelings and listening to your child’s concerns helps them feel understood.  When one feels understood, they feel connected and not alone, which in turn reduces the feelings of anxiety.  When anxiety is reduced, there is more energy available not only for problem-solving and addressing and managing the concerns, but also for grasping new concepts and learning – all important for back-to-school success. 

Helping your child understand that these back to school jitters are not unusual, and they are not "weird" in feeling anxious or scared, can be accomplished by sharing your own memories about what it felt like to return to school after a summer away.  Children love to hear about what problems and distress we, their parents, have experienced and how we’ve managed to survive through the multitude of life’s changes.  It’s reassuring and makes us more relatable to them, which helps reduce their feelings of distress.

Being proactive in asking about your child’s worries and talking through it together can also be helpful in separating realistic concerns from unrealistic ones.  By making familiar what is unfamiliar – like in visiting a new school, meeting a new teacher, or making a play date with a classmate before school starts – can all help in reducing your child’s anxiety.

Lastly, parents have feelings too and it’s important to be aware of your own emotions!  First days of school and the changes that accompany this new beginning can be stressful for you as well, and children have incredible radar in picking up on our anxieties.  How you deal with and manage your own emotions is quickly communicated to your child, so if you are feeling worried and anxious, your child will respond with nervousness too.  Remember, you are human too; just like your child, you also need to know it is okay to talk with someone - a friend, spouse, or a professional.  

Providing your guidance and support by encouraging an open conversation with your child about their emotions is critical in helping them feel more in control of the changes that are happening.   Working through their problems alongside them will help them to develop the confidence and resiliency necessary in dealing with the back-to-school jitters that come along as part of life’s changes.

—Dr. Donna Housman, child psychologist and founder/executive director of Beginnings School in Weston

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