3-Step Back to School Plan for Anxious Kids (And Parents!)

As August flies by, kids and parents all over the world are feeling three common end-of-summer emotions: sadness (no more lazy, unstructured days), excitement (no more lazy, unstructured days), and anxiety (new school year, lots of unknowns).

My older son starts kindergarten next week (yes, next week! What happened to starting after Labor Day?), and I’m in the throes of all three emotions, though anxiety is the clear front-runner.

And, rightly so. The transition from pre-school to kindergarten is notoriously challenging, even for typically developing kids- new environment, new teacher, more kids, longer day, more expectations. So, it’s understandable to be extra worried about how my “differently-wired” kid is going to fare.

What is this going to look like? Is he going to be ok? Will he be overwhelmed by all the kids? Will his teacher understand his needs? What if he has no one to play with? If he gets dysregulated, will his teacher be able to help him? Will he hold it together at school only to completely fall apart at home? Should I expect more meltdowns? What if he has a regression? Is public school the right place for him?

I could go on. As the first day of school gets closer and closer, managing my anxiety has felt like a full-time job! Not surprisingly, in the past couple weeks, H has shown signs of heightened anxiety as well- he's flapping (which he hasn't done in years), engaging in baby-talk and having more meltdowns.

If this is resonating with you, let’s unpack it.

What is anxiety and why do we feel it?

Official definition: anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.

Key words: uncertain outcome.

We become anxious when we’re not sure what to expect, when we feel out of control, when we can’t fit things into a neat little box.

Our brains are constantly scanning our environment for potential threats to our safety. As soon as the brain picks up on a threat, the amygdala (our emotional response center) sounds an internal alarm system to mobilize our fight or flight response so we don’t succumb to the threat.

Back in the day, this was an ingenious way to ensure our survival. Potential saber- toothed tiger lurking around the corner = amygdala springs into action= you live. It didn’t matter if the tiger was there or not, the amygdala’s motto is “better safe than sorry.”

In modern times, these common “uncertain” potentially life-threatening situations (neighboring tribe might attack) have been replaced by “uncertain” situations that aren’t (child about to start kindergarten).

Unfortunately, our amygdalas haven’t received the memo and are still operating under the old saber-toothed tiger programing. Hence, the anxiety we feel about non-life-threatening situations with “uncertain outcomes” or… daily life!

Kids who have sensory processing challenges often have heightened anxiety. As one therapist explains, “Sensory Processing Disorder and Anxiety are simpatico. They are best buddies. They like to hang out and wreak havoc together.”

Faulty sensory processing alerts the amygdala to “uncertainty” and possible danger, so for kids with SPD, the amygdala is constantly operating on all cylinders. Bright lights? Crowded environment? Too much noise? New situation? The amygdala is on it!

What are signs of anxiety in children?

Anxiety often shows up in a combination of physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms.

Physical Symptoms:

  • Stomach aches
  • Headaches
  • Restlessness
  • Hyperactivity (not caused by ADHD)
  • Tense muscles
  • Bed wetting
  • Changes in appetite
  • Disrupted sleep
  • Nightmares

Emotional Symptoms:

  • Heightened sensitivity
  • Frequent/increased crying
  • Worried/afraid during drop-off
  • Obsessive thoughts
  • Compulsive behaviors (finger tapping, flapping, hand-washing, counting)
  • Phobias/exaggerated fears
  • Afraid of making mistakes
  • Anger outbursts

Behavioral Symptoms:

  • More frequent/intense meltdowns and tantrums
  • Increased whining
  • Separation anxiety/increased clinginess
  • Refuses to go to school
  • Avoids social situations/plays alone
  • Doesn’t participate in classroom activities
  • Increased irritability
  • Appears preoccupied
  • Refuses to speak to peers and/or strangers in social settings (grocery-checker, waitress)
  • Excessive approval seeking
  • Constantly asks “what if” questions

If back-to-school has ramped up your and your child’s anxiety symptoms, here are...

3 Steps to Manage Back-to-School Anxiety

1. Get Support. Children are emotional sponges who absorb our feelings. When we’re anxious, they’re anxious. So, before you address your child’s anxiety, you must address yours- think oxygen mask on the airplane.

Talk to your partner or a friend. Write in your journal. Schedule an extra therapy session or look into starting therapy. Join a parenting group. Reach out to me! There’s a saying in therapy, “name it to tame it.” Talking about your anxiety with a trusted loved one or a trained professional is calming and goes a long way for lessening its hold over you.

Other go-to anxiety reducers- meditation, exercise (think restorative rather than strenuous), good sleep hygiene, abstaining from caffeine, deep breathing, laughter, challenging your thoughts, cbd oil, relaxing tea (chamomile or peppermint are good ones). Click here for more suggestions.

2. Acknowledge. Normalize. Reassure. Once you’ve proactively addressed your own anxiety, you’ll be better able to address your child’s. When he’s calm and regulated, talk to him about the anxiety symptoms you’ve noticed. “Honey, I’ve noticed that you’ve been having a hard time falling asleep/more irritable/complaining of stomach aches.”

**Important Note- for sensory-seeking regulatory symptoms (flapping, thumb-sucking, jaw-clicking, etc.) it’s best not to address them directly. Instead opt for a more general statement, “I’ve noticed that your body has a lot of extra energy lately.”

Your next step is to normalize. Continue with your indirect approach by saying something like, "A lot of kids start to feel a little worried before school starts up. Even if they feel excited about it, they might also feel a little nervous, and that's ok."

Just as calling direct attention to anxiety symptoms can cause more anxiety, using a direct statement like, "It seems like you feel worried about going back to school," can ramp it up as well, so stick to phrases like, "some kids...," "a lot of kids...," "it's common for kids to..."

After you normalize, you’ll reassure him that you're here to help him with his feelings. “I understand how you’re feeling and I’m here for you.” Your role is to be with him in his anxiety and to help him problem-solve.

Avoid going into fix-it mode and/or using invalidating statements like, "everything is going to be ok," "you'll be just fine," "school is going to be so fun!" We can all agree that when you're feeling anxious, there's nothing worse than someone telling you there's nothing to worry about!

He may be able to tell you what he's worried about, he may cite something completely unrelated to school as his anxiety trigger or he may stay mum. It doesn’t matter. The important things are to let him know:

  1. You see what’s going on with him (you've noticed he's less talkative/having nightmares/using a whiny voice).
  2. Whatever he’s feeling is normal, "lots of kids" feel this way.
  3. You’re here to help (not fix, but help).

Normalizing Activities:

  • For younger kids, tell your own or read a bedtime story about the first day of school.
  • Make your own first day of school book on this fabulous site which I highly recommend checking out (I’m not affiliated in any way).
  • Have an “expected vs. unexpected” conversation

Conversation Example-

H, you’re starting Kindergarten soon!

Blank stare.

A lot of kids have two feelings about starting kindergarten. One is that they’re excited about meeting new friends and learning new things and the other is that they’re nervous… about meeting new friends and learning new things. Both of these feelings are ok and it’s totally normal to have both!

Mommy, I feel excited.

Great, honey. (Hmmm...your behavior over the past couple weeks...flapping, increased irritability, more meltdowns.. suggests otherwise!) And even if you’re feeling a little nervous, that’s ok too. Sometimes we feel nervous when we don’t know what to expect.

Fiddling with his zipper.

How do you think Kindergarten might be similar to Preschool? What are you expecting?

Long pause. We’ll still get to play??

Yeah, definitely (reassuring the poor kid!). You’ll still get to play on a playground during snack and lunch. You’ll probably still have circle time and clean-up time too. What do you think might be different?

Ummm…. Well, I’ll have a new teacher and it’s a new classroom…

That’s right. There will be more kids in your class and your school day will be a little longer than it was in Preschool. In Preschool, Mom picked you up right after lunch. In Kindergarten, you stay at school after lunch and learn more things and then I pick you up in the afternoon.

Key points: You’re acknowledging feelings, normalizing, identifying what’s expected, and clearing up what’s unexpected. Less uncertainty = less anxiety.

Important note- There’s a fine line between acknowledging and normalizing in a way that eases your child’s anxiety and acknowledging and normalizing in way that exacerbates it. We have to be careful not to overdo it. Which leads me to the next step….

3. Less Talk, More Action. Rather than having multiple conversations about his anxiety, enlist his help in doing something about it. Remember, anxiety is about feeling out of control, so when we can gain a sense of agency, anxiety will lessen.

Here are some action-based back-to-school anxiety tamers you can do with your child:

  • Make a back-to-school list together then check off each thing you do
  • Go shopping to pick out a new backpack/lunch pail
  • Pick out first day of school outfit
  • Create shopping list for lunch foods
  • Set up playdates with kids in his class
  • Write an “introduction letter” to his teacher
  • Visit the school before the first day
  • Make a first day of school “morning plan”

Let’s recap.

Your most important job is to get support for your own anxiety. A calm and regulated mama = a calm and regulated kid.

You want to acknowledge and normalize your child’s anxiety, then reassure him that you’re here to help.

Trade in lengthy conversations for a more action-based approach.

If all else fails, repeat this mantra…

Everything is exactly as it should be. We/he will be ok. We/he will get through this.

I promise it is and you will.

Is back-to-school induced anxiety alive and well in your family? How is it showing up? What are you doing to manage your anxiety? What are you doing to manage your child’s? Leave a comment below, the Sensory Mom community and I would love to hear from you.


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