As the beginning of the school year is upon us, we want to acknowledge what that means for the many families navigating the anxiety of the upcoming year. Most students have spent over a year learning remotely, disconnected from friends and their routine, and have been catapulted back into school, and not everyone is excited about that.
Many students (and even parents) are experiencing anxiety just thinking about this school year, but what is anxiety, and what does it look like?
More on Anxiety
Anxiety is a feeling of worries, fear, and/or nervousness about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. By technical definition, school anxiety in our children can look like separation anxiety, social anxiety, and generalized anxiety.
What you and your child may experience daily:
- Separation Anxiety- or children basically being afraid of being away from their parents. This makes sense after being home with you for most of the past year. The idea of leaving parents or the safety of their home can become distressing for students. This can express itself as difficulty waking up in the morning, crying to enter the school building, and in some cases refusing to attend class or school altogether.
- Social anxiety is an intense fear or worry in social situations or just thinking about being in a social context. Your child may express concerns about fitting in or feeling embarrassed amongst their peers and describe feeling self-conscious in social situations. It can show up as a reluctance or refusal to go to school, dropping extracurricular activities, being more withdrawn at home, or children visibly distressed at the end of the day or going out of their way to not be seen.
- Generalized anxiety is when they anticipate the future with every possible negative outcome, usually characterized by many “what if” this or that happens questions or scenarios. With this type of anxiety, young people are just worried about everything- be it getting good grades, if they’ll get into college, if they will get covid by stepping outside, etc. Usually, these worries have no discernible cause.
Supporting and Encouraging Your Anxious Child
The most important thing you can do is pay attention to any significant changes in your child as parents and educators. Are they struggling to pay attention in class, not socializing with other classmates, avoiding eye contact, or trying hard to avoid school or different social situations? You can even look for physical symptoms (because distress often shows up physically): Nausea, headaches, trouble sleeping, or changes in their appetite. The article “How to Help When Your Child Is Anxious About Going Back to School” suggests a few ways in which parents and teachers can help with children experiencing anxiety. The most important one is recognizing the signs of anxiety. Once you do, we suggest the following:
- Talk to your child or students about why they are anxious, along with discussing any possible scenarios that cause them to be worried. Helping them prepare for upcoming stressors and interjecting realistic outcomes can be helpful. The key is to approach with support and never brush off a child’s fear, even if it doesn’t seem like a big deal to you, because it is a significant issue for the child.
- Don’t judge or criticize what your child or teen is experiencing. The intense anxiety and unhelpful thoughts of those dealing with anxiety may seem ridiculous to someone who has never experienced it, but it still is a real experience. That said, take time to educate yourself on your child’s experience. As parents, we don’t always have all the answers.
- Be careful not to reinforce avoidant behavior. We want your child to learn to navigate their fears, but they may need more coping tools to do so, instead of staying away from school or social situations or being forced into it with a do what I sayor else approach. We want them to learn that some anxiety is ok. If you keep trying to protect them from that, you’ll reinforce their lack of confidence in handling stressful and anxiety-provoking situations.
- Notice your own anxious reactions. Anxiety sometimes runs in families as well. Notice how it shows up around your children or other aspects of your life. Either way, your goal is to model healthy coping skills for your child. If you are struggling with anxiety yourself, it might even mean seeking professional support for yourself as well.
5. Try creative ways to get their worries off their minds. One activity that can be done is journaling. Having them write down whenever they are feeling anxious. Then have them rewrite that story with a more helpful ending or practice leaving the worry behind in the journal.
- Remember to celebrate progress (and even yours in holding back and letting them fail and/or thrive on their own). No matter how small it may seem, encouragement equals continued positive action.
If you are all out of ideas, and things are escalating, it’s ok to ask for help. Globally, social anxiety disorder is the third most prominent mental health issue- that means you or your child are not alone in your experience- so no shame in talking about it.
Start with your school counselor for ideas on supporting your child, maybe their primary care doctor, or reach out and contact a licensed therapist for an assessment and plan of action. Anxiety can be addressed with skills and support, both from a professional and the entire family system.
Article written by Kilcy Martinez, Social Work Intern at York College, and Amanda Fludd, Executive Director at Kensho Psychotherapy Services. Our goal is to support your wellbeing and strive to do that in many ways including therapy, group experiences and corporate wellness events.