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How to Prepare an Anxious Child for Back-to-School

Mary is a writer living in the Midwest with her husband, Chris, and her two daughters. Mary loves to write about all of the things she loves the most: motherhood, marriage, food, current events and really great books.

'Don’t try to convince them they shouldn’t feel the way they do'

I’ve got one of those kids who simply doesn’t do well with big changes. Just last week, she overheard me suggesting I’d like to put our house on the market eventually so we could move closer to my husband’s work, and she made it very clear that she doesn’t feel OK about that idea.

More: Where to get school supplies for free this year (yup, free!) 

I’m not worried about her resistance to change because I know how typical this is for kids her age, but I do think a lot about whether or not I’m doing a good job preparing her for changes when they’re inevitable. The biggest change that comes to mind is the beginning of school. This transition can be a rough one for families when their child isn’t so keen on change. Whether they’re young kids moving on from day care to kindergarten or they’re already in school but moving to a new location, leaving behind what feels safe and comfortable can be hard.

Of course, as parents, we can’t really change who our kids are and it is perfectly OK if some children are more comfortable with the familiar, but there are certainly ways we can make transitions less difficult.

Don’t shame them for feeling nervous

Remember, feelings are never right or wrong, they just are. Your child has never experienced this big change, and it is OK for them to be nervous. Don’t try to convince them they shouldn’t feel the way they do. Instead, Maryellen P. Mullin, licensed marriage and family therapist at San Francisco Family Therapy advises validating their feelings. "Normalize it," she says. "Reassure your kid that all kids feel a little nervous going back the first day to school."

Help them prepare for their first day

We spend a lot of time preparing our kids for their first day of school, buying new clothes and stocking up on school supplies, but your child may need a little extra help before they feel ready for their big day. Add helping your child to emotionally prepare for school to your end-of-summer checklist.

This can be done a variety of ways according to Mullin, who suggests parents attend any back-to-school events your child’s school is hosting. Many schools will allow children to take a quick tour, meeting their teachers and checking out their new classrooms. This is a great time to start connecting with the parents of your child’s classmates and to get the details on bussing, walking or school drop-offs.

"Start the school routine before school actually starts," suggests Mullin. "Get your child up at the time they will get ready, practice picking out clothes, have breakfast, snack and lunch at those times and put them to bed at the ‘school night’ time at least one week before school starts."

More: How to help your anxious kid — when you have anxiety too

Manage your own anxiety well

Kids are smart, and they will pick up on your anxiety if you are feeling nervous. Helping your child prepare is great, but you don’t need to manipulate every aspect of their day to guarantee it isn’t difficult.

"Tell your child he or she will be fine and you know they are capable of having a great day and making friends. If you are confident, it will rub off on your kid," says Mullin. "If you are nervous, don't project that onto your kid. Tell a friend, co-parent or spouse, but don't talk about your negative feelings or misgivings about a new school or school situation."

Celebrate the big day

The first day at a new school is a big deal, and it is something worth celebrating. Schedule time into the first day to talk it over with your child. Mullin advises parents to give their child their full attention, asking questions that encourage them to share more information about their day. These questions could cover any topic, like who they sat with at lunch or what game they played at recess.

More: 16 supplies to make back-to-school fun for your kid

Follow up if things don’t improve

For many children, a good routine and parents who model confidence about their schooling is enough to help them transition smoothly to their new school. However, some kids may still struggle to adjust or continue to deal with anxiety. "If you don't see your kid's anxiety declining after a few weeks, chat with the teacher and school counselor," suggests Mullin.

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