Lisa Stern, MD, a Santa Monica pediatrician, is used to hearing her patients in late summer express apprehension about the upcoming start of school. What’s sometimes surprising is the source of the stress: their parents.
“A mother will inadvertently say, ‘Oh, I see you got the strict teacher,’ or ‘You’ve got all the smart kids in your class this year—it’s going to be a tough year!’” says Dr. Stern, whose practice is part of the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles Health Network. “Think about what that sounds like from a child’s perspective.”
We all experience anxiety when we go into a new situation. As families prepare to send their kids and teens back to school, it’s normal for the excitement to come with some degree of worry. Instead of adding to it, parents should find ways to help their children make a successful transition back to the classroom, says Bhavana Arora, MD, Chief Medical Officer of the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles Health Network.
After the freedom and flexibility of summer vacation, making the adjustment to the structure of the classroom schedule can be challenging. Some younger children worry about separating from their parents, and teens can feel stress about social pressures or the daunting task of balancing schoolwork and extracurricular activities, Arora says.
It’s important for parents to acknowledge and address their children’s anxiety rather than brushing it off. What might seem inconsequential to you might be weighing heavily on your child.
However good your intentions, sharing your own anxiety (“I’m going to cry when you go to school,” or “I’m going to miss you when you’re in kindergarten.”) can make the transition more difficult rather than easier for young children.
Instead, try to ease the transition with a few simple steps, Arora says. If your child is starting at a new school, paying a visit to the campus and even meeting the new teacher can help your child to know what to expect. And arranging playdates with children who will be in your son or daughter’s class can help assure your child will have at least one familiar face on the first day.
It’s also helpful to use the last two weeks before school starts to transition to a school-appropriate sleep schedule, going to bed earlier and waking up at the time your child will have to wake during the school year.
When children express anxiety about school, many parents have the instinct to solve the child’s problems. Instead, see the transition to school as a safe opportunity to help your child learn to negotiate new situations and challenges so that they will be better equipped to solve their own problems later in life.
Dr. Stern recommends avoiding the tendency to micromanage your child’s life. “Instead of saying ‘Why don’t you sit at lunch with Johnny from across the street?”, say, ‘I know you’ll be able to find someone you’ll want to sit with.’” Parents should also trust teachers to help students to handle these moments.
While nearly every child experiences some degree of nervousness about returning to school, parents should pay closer attention if anxiety is interfering with normal life activities. If a child refuses to go to school at all, cries excessively, or is losing sleep it can be helpful to discuss these concerns with your pediatrician, Arora says.
With appropriate support through the transition, your child will wake up that first day of school, rested, excited and ready for the year ahead.
And if not? “It’s also important for children to learn that they’re not always going to have easy days, and that’s okay,” says Dr. Stern. “Because you learn something from every day, whether it’s easy or tough.”
To find a CHLA Health Network pediatrician in your community, go to CHLA.org/HealthNetwork.