For many, many kids around the world, there are three little words they dread the most: back to school. The return to classrooms can invoke anxiety, fear and stomach aches that suddenly preclude them from leaving bed.
If this is your child, know that you’re far from alone. A survey of counselors conducted by The New York Times in April found that school absences shot to 85% in comparison to before the pandemic. Almost all counselors said that students were experiencing increased anxiety and depression. They’re also having trouble regulating their emotions and problem-solving conflicts with friends, among other concerns.
So, what can you do? We compiled a few tips and tricks for helping your kids overcome their anxieties.
Ask them to write their feelings out
Getting everything down on a piece of paper can be a really helpful tool for clarifying anxious thoughts. KidsHealth suggests that you ask your child to make a list of everything they don’t like about school. Then, ask them to write down any positives that come to mind (that might remind them of things they forgot they had been looking forward to, like seeing a friend they like or recess!)
Tackle the list of negatives. That will help you get a sense of what’s really going on in your child’s brain and you can figure out a way to deal with those specific fears, whether it’s trouble with their peers or dislike of a certain subject. Now, you have a baseline to work from.
Help them quiet their anxious thoughts
Sometimes, it can be as simple and powerful as breathing through their anxiety. There are tons of YouTube videos designed especially for kids that tackle mindfulness and might be a helpful to watch before the school day. The Rainbow Relaxation routine, for instance, is all about body movements and visualization. A guided meditation from GoNoodle aims to bring down stressful energy. And this creative Melting Exercise helps kids “melt away” any bad feelings.
Introduce your child to a mental health professional
Connecting your child with a psychologist can help them get to the root of their school anxiety and find useful ways to manage it. Boys Town, a nonprofit dedicated to helping children and their families succeed, suggests that there are therapeutic, practical methods to work through these mental blocks, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
“Treatment providers who work with kids with school refusal issues often will use cognitive-behavioral therapy, which helps kids learn to manage their anxious thoughts and feelings and face their fears,” Boys Town noted. “[Kids can] learn and use skills that can help reduce child and parent anxiety/distress.”
Suggest they go to school for just a period or two
Consider easing them back into school by offering a middle ground of just attending for part of the day. That compromise can make all the difference because, at the very least, it gets them into the building.
“If you can get them into school for just a period or two a day to start, they will quickly discover that being in the building, among their peers and teachers, may be uncomfortable but is not catastrophic (a fear typically expressed by school-refusing kids),” psychologist John Duffy, author of Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety, wrote in an article for CNN in 2021. “And once kids are in the building, they are far more likely to stay, often for another period or two, sometimes for the entire day.”
Try not to lecture
Monitoring your own tone can make a lot of difference. Barbara Markway Ph.D., noted in an article for PsychologyToday that parents should be careful with how they approach the topic of school refusal with their children.
“Avoid lengthy discussions and debates about the importance of going to school. Lecturing won’t do any good, and it may actually make matters worse,” she wrote. “Any attention, even negative attention, can reinforce and maintain a problem.”
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