How to Talk to Your Kids About Back-to-School Anxiety - Tips From an Old Deep-Dish Psychotherapist

Hello and warm wishes to all parents and guardians of school age children, from pre-school to college!!!

I want to suggest a way to talk with your kids, to ease garden-variety anxiety about going back to school. It can come in handy with or without a pandemic, but with a pandemic, it’s especially useful.

None of this is terribly original and most of it consists of repurposed therapy skills. But it can come in handy, and maybe you’ll get some fresh perspective in here. As always, I count on you to take what you can use and chuck the rest. 

Okay, so here goes – number one tip:

  1. Tune the Instrument. And the instrument is you. You’re the designated Agent of Anxiety Reduction, and you’re probably not exactly at your calmest, having been running around filling out registration forms, finding school supplies, clothes, lunch foodstuffs, tutors, after-school programs and re-arranging daily schedules (including your own) to accommodate the fact that the party’s over and fall is here.

So you’re probably frazzled. And guess who’s the first to pick that up?  Yep, that adorable little (or not so little) squeezer of yours – the emotional sponge with the quivering antennae that so brilliantly pick up your mood, attitude and level of stress.

Best thing you can do for the kid is to re-center your own self and pull up some inner calm from that giant tank of emotional reserves you have, but which may have been misplaced at the moment.

The good news is, it’s not hard to regain your equilibrium and it doesn’t have to take much time – maybe 5 minutes of practice, a couple/few times a day and it’s yours to keep in your back pocket.

Everyone’s different, but there’s probably something on this list below of quickie re-centering tools, and the halo effect will automatically beam onto your offspring. (Trust me, I’m not overstating this connection.) So, here’s a sampling of some options:

If you like your relaxation by way of simple breathing exercises, Andy Weil’s meditations are first-rate in Breathing: The Master Key to Self Healing; Belleruth also has a straightforward, 9-minute guided breathing exercise in our Mindful Meditation Mix.

       2. If you’re a fan of brief guided meditation and imagery exercises, people really love this sampler of 7 gentle but powerful gems from Francoise Adan MD in Let My Words Be Your Words.

       3. Emmett Miller MD, an iconic pioneer in the field (who has a rich baritone that some call a Voice Like Gawd), has 2 very popular self-hypnosis meditations called The 10-Minute Stress Manager

       4. We are all big fans of Bodhipaksa around here, and he applies his beautiful, soothing Scottish voice and compassionate presence to Meditations for Busy People, also highly recommended.

All right. So let’s assume you’ve tuned the instrument and you know how to get to your oasis of calm lickety-split in the midst of the chaos. 

What do we do about the kid?

Let’s say you’re picking up signs of anxiety, in whatever characteristic ways your child shows it. It will look different on a grade schooler than a high school junior, but the basics really are the same. You know - they’re edgy or distracted, oversleeping or not sleeping, getting headaches or stomach aches, spending too much screen time or party time or finding other ways to avoid focusing on the whole back-to-school enterprise – things like that. If they’re little, they’re going to be clingy or tantrummy or both. 

What are things to do or not to do?  Here are some steps I used to find helpful. I’m gearing this advice more to a middle-schooler, but the essence works for a kindergartener or a high schooler if you adjust the language. (Of course, a younger kid is more likely to talk to you, period. Older kids will prefer friends to confide in, and that can work just fine. But here’s the drill:

  • You notice signs of anxiety

  • You then check in to see how anxious you’re starting to feel. If not so much, proceed.  If it’s noticeable, take a few minutes and deploy your favorite self-calming oasis moves. You are the instrument and you want to stay tuned!
  • With a light touch, and adjusting your language for the age and personality of your kid, you ask something like, Are you okay? Or, Are you worrying about something? Or, Are you bummed summer’s over?

  • If they answer in the negative, you can say something like ‘Well, I’m around’ or, a jocular version, like You know where I live if you feel like talking’ and then leave it alone, even if you don’t believe them for a minute.

Don’t challenge them. If you’re worried, you may want to lasso a favorite Auntie or adult confidante you both trust to come over and make some subtle moves. If they’re really in distress, you may want to get some professional help. But mostly, I’m addressing regular old normal anxiety.

  • If they answer in the affirmative, then you are called upon to deploy the Ultimate Parental Skill, and it’s not easy. It’s called Shut Up and Listen. It’s really hard to pull off. We all want to immediately say that it’ll be fine. Or that they’ve got it handled. Or bombard them with a million questions.

 That’s because we parents get anxious and want to fix it immediately.

But if we do that at this juncture, we just shut them down. Instead, it’s good to just take a breath, maybe sneak back to your oasis for a few moments, then offer a light prompt: What’s up? ..followed by more Laudably Self-Disciplined Silence, thus leaving actual space for them to talk.

  • Whatever follows, keep a lid on that ever-present impulse to fix it fast and let them talk it through with you. You may do some problem solving with them. You may want to ask if there’s anything you can do on your end to make it a little bit easier. 

  • After letting them talk as much as they want to, you may want to ask them about times they handled something as tough as this, and if there were things they thought or did that they can bring to this situation. You may want to hear if any of their friends are struggling too, and talk about that for a bit. You may want to ask them what advice or encouragement they would have a friend feeling the way they do.

  • It’s okay if it’s awkward. Stumbles and silences, false starts and stops are often an indication of a genuine conversation – including in a psychotherapy session, by the way.
  • And be aware, the more that comes from them, the more empowering the experience is. Prompt them to remember what they already know. 

  • Solutions the two of you come up with can be all over the map. Help may come from getting a very cool shirt or footwear to show up in on the first day of school. Or some tools or tips for re-regulating their sleep to get ready for school hours. Planning favorite foodstuffs in their lunch. Or visiting the new middle school or high school when the building is still empty, just to get some familiarity with it.

  • Or getting them some self-calming oasis tools of their own to help them build their centering/calming skills. That’s a gift that will keep on giving for the rest of their lives.

We curated some fine guided imagery and meditation audios for any age kid – everything from Dr. Rox’s enchanting guided imagery for the really little ones, to the amazing ZENIMAL pre-loaded player that looks like a turtle for a wide range of kiddoes – all the way up to to Bodhipaksa’s brilliant Mindfulness Meditations for Teens.  You can check out the whole library here.

And remember- Just because they’re anxious doesn’t necessarily mean the sky is falling. 

All best,

Belleruth

P.S. We welcome your posts on your own thoughts about this issue when you have a minute.