Heading back to school can stir up a variety of emotions. A Staples commercial aired several years ago that showed parents exuberantly riding on shopping carts in front of the school supplies aisle while “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” played cheerfully in the background. Some parents eagerly anticipate their children going back to school because it establishes structure and resolves the typical summer problems like siblings fighting, kids having too much idle time, or lack of child care resources. Children themselves are usually divided into two camps, those who are excited to go back to school and those who are fearful to return.
Back to school time can be extremely stressful and anxiety-provoking for some children. Children are often fearful of the unknown. Who will my teacher be? Will they be nice? Will I have friends in my class? Will I get a lot of homework? Will I have to change for gym? What if I can’t open my locker? Other children may be fearful about their academic performance, bullying, or extracurricular activities. The loop of questions can be endless, circulating in a child’s mind for the duration of summer, only to intensify before school starts.
The media and retail stores may unknowingly feed into and intensify a child’s anxiety. Upon entering the local Target or Walmart, a child can immediately be inundated with Back to School banners and displays. Rows of school supplies, backpacks, and lunchboxes greet them from each aisle. Television commercials and circulars urge parents to shop for back to school wardrobes. Back to School advertising seems to get earlier and earlier each year. Children often have to pass through Back to School aisles while attempting to find bathing suit and summer displays.
It is true that every year, back to school time is inevitable. However the anxiety that accompanies it does not have to be. There are several things that parents can do to ease their child’s anxiety about entering a new grade or transitioning to a new school. First, parents should carve out uninterrupted time to talk to their children. Parents should create an open and supportive forum so that children feel comfortable discussing their feelings and concerns. Parents should never be dismissive of their child’s apprehension, no matter how insignificant it may seem. Parents should help their child to explore their concerns instead of quickly discarding or pushing them aside.
Parents can always contact their child’s school during the summer months to request a brief tour. A tour can help a child to familiarize themselves with their new school building in addition to alleviating concerns about getting lost. During a tour, a child could potentially be given an opportunity to try opening a locker, or be shown the changing area for gym if those are causes of concern.
Back to school anxiety often causes children to feel insecure or unsafe. Talking to children, taking their concerns seriously, and providing constant reassurance of your love, security, and support is paramount. Providing a child with a token from home, such as a picture or special note on the first day of school can also be helpful in reminding them of your unconditional support.
Back to school anxiety is almost always related to the fear of the unknown. Anything that could inform, shed light on, or answer a child’s questions can help to alleviate these fears. Although Staple’s depiction of exuberant parents might very well be accurate for some, parents should also be vigilant of their child’s feelings. And who knows, with the right type of support, children may be able to hop on the shopping carts with their parents and enjoy the ride through Staples too.
Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.