Helping your Tweens and Teens with Back to In-Person School Anxiety

Helping your Tweens and Teens with Back to In-Person School Anxiety

Back to school. Three simultaneously joyous and terrifying words that a lot of us haven’t heard for what feels like a very long time. For many of us, the remote learning that many of our children have stumbled through, some successfully, some not, is coming to an end. Most of our children will be heading back to school in person for full days for the first time in a very long time (depending on your school district and the decisions they (and you) will be making over the next few weeks). Going back to school full time can be a scary thought, especially for those whose confidence has been shaken by the online learning experience. It’s been over a year since so many students have done an actual full day of in-person school! It’s also terrifying to be around SO MANY PEOPLE again, when for so long we were advised to minimize our social contacts as much as possible. What a shock to the nervous system that is for so many of us! We’re all a little socially rusty at this point. Even if your child is excited to head back to school, there will likely be some anxiety simply because it’s been so long since they’ve experienced the rigors of in-person learning, not to mention being around so many peers for extended periods of time. What’s a parent to do to help our children through this very unique experience?

Unfortunately, I don’t have a magical answer. I wish I had a step-by-step list for you to follow to help your child prepare for what’s to come. But I don’t. None of us do, because this experience for a lot of these kids is entirely unprecedented. So rather than a step-by-step list, here are a few talking points that I think will be helpful.

1. It makes sense!!! Because so few people have had this experience before, it makes sense that everyone, parents, kids and teachers, are feeling nervous for what comes next. And it’s important to remind them of that. If they express feeling anxious or worried about school, rather than telling them “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine! Everyone else is anxious too!”, which can come off as dismissive and invalidating, tell them “Oh my goodness, honey, it makes sense that you feel nervous! You haven’t been to school in so long. I completely understand why you would feel that way.” VALIDATE how they’re feeling. Emotional validation is so important for de-escalating big feelings. Make sure they know that reminding themselves their feelings make sense as they’re feeling anxious walking through the halls of their school can be a helpful way to cope with whatever anxiety shows up, as well.

2. Build an Anxiety Bridge. Remind them of past experiences when they’ve gotten through something hard. For instance, the entire last year of being in a digital learning environment! Whether they were academically successful or not, they got through it. Narrate to them what you saw. It might sound something like this: “Honey, when this pandemic started and you had to start taking classes from your computer, I saw you make that transition from doing something you were used to, going to school every day, to doing something you were not at all used to, getting up every morning to get on a Zoom call and doing your best to learn that way. You figured out how to do a lot of things you had never really done before, and you just kept doing it until it became something that you were used to. Watching you do that was really amazing. If you can do that, I know that you’ll be able to do this.” Reminding them of successes is a way of helping them understand they’re capable of doing hard things. So much of anxiety is OVERESTIMATING a problem and UNDERESTIMATING our ability to cope with it. Giving them concrete examples of times they’ve coped before can help them prepare for the next challenge.

3. Don’t let them out of it. Some of your kids might give you pushback that first day. Or that first week. Or maybe all month. The anxiety might be really big, and they might beg and plead to stay home. Allowing them to avoid is not what you want to do. Avoidance fuels anxiety, what started as a small worry can become unmanageable the more we allow our children to avoid things that make them feel anxious. Set a very firm boundary. And if you find yourself in a power struggle, try to make it you and your child versus the problem. Here’s an example: “Something about going to school feels very uncomfortable. That makes sense. You haven’t been in so long! I hear you and I believe you. Since you do have to go, I wonder if there’s something we can think of that might make it feel less scary. Should we call your friend to see if we can ride in together? Or maybe I can pack your favorite snack in your lunch, that thing I never let you have, so you have something to look forward to?” Get on their side. Make it you and your child versus the problem, not you versus your child. Validating an emotion has the power to do that. I hear that you’re anxious, I see that you’re anxious, AND I know you can do hard things, so what can we do as a team to make this happen?

4. Enjoy the last of summer. Try not to let thoughts, worries, or anxieties about the scary thing that’s coming interfere with the present. Remind your kids that it’s not time for school yet and worrying about it will only spoil the good time that could be had today. Here’s a funny saying I frequently tell my older patients that inevitably gets a laugh: “If you have one foot in yesterday and one foot in tomorrow, you pee all over today.” Remind them that there will be sufficient time to worry about school when it’s actually time for school. But for now, have fun!

As parents in this situation, we need to communicate our confidence in our children without making their problems or worries seem insignificant. Validation lets them know we hear them and we’re on their side; reminding them of past successes lets them know we’ve seen what they’re capable of and giving them a nudge (or push…or just outright pulling them) to get through the challenge helps build resilience and grit so they can get through all of life’s challenges. This pandemic has been so hard on so many of us, but hopefully our children will emerge stronger and braver because of it. If they can get through a global pandemic, they can get through anything.

Shannon Odell, PsyD is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Lake Oswego, Oregon