The Five P’s for Managing Back to School Anxiety

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Like it or not, summer is almost over. Stores around the area started their back to school sales, uniform shops are packed as soon as they open, and parents everywhere are bleary-eyed as they re-introduce structured bedtimes and (my personal bane) waking up routines. For most of us, the first day of school is just around the corner. And while some parents are jumping for joy (and rightfully so), I confess I’m not looking forward to it.

We’ve had a lovely summer relaxing, playing, and sleeping in. Sure, we practiced our multiplication facts, worked on writing in cursive, and read enough books to earn free chicken (thanks Jefferson Parish Library). But we did everything at our own pace, and without school drama invading our days. For a moment this summer… and I mean 5-10 minutes MAX… I considered homeschooling. Then I remembered how much I enjoy silence.

We have been ramping into “school mode” for several weeks, in a different way than most. My daughter Charley suffers from anxiety and sensory issues. For her, and many children like her, school is not just getting an education, seeing friends and adjusting to schedule. She fights inner demons: classrooms that are too loud, children (and teachers) that are too harsh, and irrational fears that are too big. Easing into the school year is a must.

So I’ve developed the five P’s for my family, and I hope yours, to tackle the emotional hurdle of going back to school.

Prepare

Preparing for school feels hard, but for me this is the easy part. I’m a fan of this checklist for the months leading up to that first day, as it tackles what is necessary for your child and for your household. But if that first day is looming and you are scrambling (and Momma we’ve all been there), here’s a short list of items to consider:

  • Backpacks and Lunch Kits
  • Uniforms or Outfits
  • Shoes, Socks and Underwear
  • School Supplies
  • Breakfast and Lunch Plans

It doesn’t matter what’s on the list; to be honest, what matters is involving your child in checking items off the list. Try to do so, and this is the hard part, with a positive and stress-free attitude. I know internally you are gritting your teeth as your own mental checklist increases, but children are energy eaters. If you stress, they will too. So let them see you’re calm, despite the “have to’s” that are invading an otherwise fun day. I’ve mentioned the “Second Chicken” concept before; put it into play.

Plan

I cannot stress enough the positive impact of my child’s weekly planner, which gives her validation, control, and responsibility. There are some things I keep on my planner, such as the date I have to turn in parent paperwork, but I let her see them. I show her that when things feel overwhelming and big, you can break them into smaller chunks and put a plan into action.

Help your child overcome anxiety by involving them in the plan. Then, when they start rolling into “what if” territory, you have a tangible action item to focus on. What if I don’t like my new teacher? Well, we will meet him/her this Monday, so we will know before the first day if that’s a problem. What if my friend Paige isn’t in my homeroom this year? Well, we have a play date planned for next Saturday so you will see her then.

Some of planning is lining ducks in a row, but I will confess that I anticipate a lot. You know your child and their fears; some mind-reading on your part will help combat anxiety before it manifests.

Practice

In part three of my anxiety series, I discussed how my daughter and I practiced carpool at home before she had to use it at school. Practicing the events you can’t plan for is a powerful and playful tool to combat a child’s fear surrounding them. This is especially helpful if your child is transitioning to a new school or moving into a “bigger” grade, such as kindergarten or middle school.

Set up a mock classroom at home, pretend you are a teacher, and let your dog or cat be a fellow student. Perhaps include their little brother or sister as the “mean kid”. Practice using words. Practice following a daily routine. Then make it fun by adding in a spontaneous dance party, worksheets, and learning games. Include a mock lunch period where they wait in line, find a seat in a cafeteria and make new friends. Go all in with them, allowing them an opportunity to discuss the scary parts. You’ll release those big, unnamed fears and beat the end of summer burnout.

Pep

Sometimes I am my daughter’s rock, other times I’m her cheerleader. And, on the rare occasion that she’s choosing her bad mood, I’m the annoying positive one who refuses to be grumpy. My Red Stick blog sis Ashley also included this in her back to school prep tips. Remaining positive in the face of anxiety may seem annoying at first, but eventually you’ll wear down your child’s defenses. As rough as that sounds, breaking through anger is necessary to get to the root of anxiety. Maybe it’s a fear they haven’t discussed with you. Your endless enthusiasm is, eventually, going to become contagious. Then, with their little heart caught off guard, positivity sneaks in.

Finally, children emulate their parent’s emotions and actions. So if you are grumbling about your newly expanded list or how hard the first week will be, they feel it too. So for their sake, and your own, remain positive. Just be sure and honor your emotional outlet. Wine, chocolate, yoga… I’m not judging!

Purpose

Similar to a new year, the start of a school year is a great time to refocus on your bigger picture. Have you set career or physical goals that fell to the wayside over the summer? Makes total sense! Sit down with your child and share those goals, and how you plan to meet them over the next few months. Then allow your child to create their own purpose. Ask what they want to achieve this year. Make a vision board and a plan, then focus on that purpose and how to achieve it.

For example, my child hates PE because she doesn’t like to sweat (she’s not wrong). When I remind her she set a goal for the year to improve her butterfly time for the swim team and physical activity increases endurance, she approaches it with a different perspective. It’s no longer some seemingly worthless thing she has to do; it’s a concrete step toward a goal she wants. 

Enjoy the Rest of Your Summer

Mixing big problems with fun, small solutions consistently is a persistent reminder to your child (and to you) that the bigger things in life are hard and scary, but you can face them rather than avoid them. For anxious little ones, this is a life skill they are learning a little too soon, but it’s valuable nonetheless. So while you can hold on tight, give them extra love and patience, and help them grow sturdy legs and strong emotional muscles. Good luck with your school year!

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Jen re-located from Dallas to New Orleans in 2007, after a brief Christmas visit with her (then fiancée) Dave made her realize she’d found her soul city. When she’s not volunteering at her two little bug’s school (one boy, one girl), she enjoys being active and adventurous. In addition to completing Tough Mudders, Jen can be found walking at the park, taking HIIT classes, swinging Kettlebells and boxing around the city. She loves chats at coffee shops with a good friend and insists on having a family fun day at home once a week. Those days are for couch time, completing puzzles or playing Nintendo while her Beagle mix Maddie snoozes on her lap and her fat cat Cinco hangs nearby. Jen feels that the big city of New Orleans is more like a small town and loves chatting with strangers, especially at Mardi Gras. In addition to her blog contributions, you can find her collection of short stories to share with friends at www.jenlassalle.com.

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