Sunday, September 2, 2018

The Power of Youth ~ Coping With Back To School Anxiety

Ah, back to school time. A joyous time of year most parents look forward to after a long summer of a house filled with kids. However, it can also be rather stressful racking up the expenses of school supplies, new clothes, dreaded school fees and forcibly re-enforcing the  'go to bed early, get up early' routine. That's just us parents.

For kids, however, it can be more than just stressful. A great number of kids suffer with tremendous anxiety this time of year. New teachers, new schoolmates, the fear of 'fitting in', homework, getting good grades and, for those going to a new school, a brand new environment. And when you factor in that some of these kids have special needs to cope with on top of everything else, it adds fuel to the fire.

All of us experiences anxiety at some point. We learn to trudge through it and move on. But as adults, we learn to cope more effectively. For children, suffering with high or on-going anxiety, situations such as going back to school can be more than overwhelming. And I know because I've had to help my four kids through it every year.

Now, I'm no expert by any means. But I do understand how anxiety can interfere with how situations are perceived, how a child can be so overwhelmed by it they aren't able to function properly and that others don't always understand how to intervene properly to not make it worse.

Here are ways to help ease some initial anxiety:

Prepare. My oldest and my son have always had the highest anxiety, not only because they are in a different environment, but also because they both have sensory struggles that escalate an already stressful situation. What I've always done is find out the teachers they'll have, research what sorts of tools are available in case of meltdowns, look up the class lists even do a practice walk so they know the best route to get to and from school. I don't have to worry about this as much with my oldest as she's learned to cope, but my son needs to understand exactly where to go, what he'll be doing and what's expected of him to keep him calm.

Talk. My youngest will burst into tears and have a fit making the easiest decision and she worries obsessively about things out of her control. The best way to ease this sort of anxiety is to encourage the child to talk about how they feel by putting words to their feelings, talk through scenarios that may occur and how the best way to deal with them and, most importantly, listen. It isn't enough to simply say, "You'll be fine. It gets easier as time goes on." Well, that may be true, but they don't understand those words in that moment.

Provide choices and encourage their input. My son was worried about going into Grade Seven this year because none of his friends will be there. He's always struggled socially, which adds to that worry and stress. Granted, his older sister will be in Grade Nine and watch out for him, but she shouldn't have to, and can't be, there every second. Children are drawn to him because he's sweet, kind and has a great sense of humor but sometimes he doesn't feel comfortable as he still doesn't know how to verbally express himself. What we did was go to the school together the week before school so he could select his options. Basically, what this did was not only sign him up in activities that he truly enjoys, but he'll also be surrounded by other kids who enjoy the same things. It can be an ice-breaker.

Re-focus on the happy stuff. My youngest worries every night about not fitting into the 'popular crowd' (it's sad this happens in elementary school!). I asked her if she knew other friends who'd be in her class or in the same school and most of them were kids she's had play dates and sleepovers with all summer. No child wants the old speech about how if other kids are being mean or rude to just ignore them because they aren't really their friends anyway. But it is true. All that can really be done is to encourage the child to stick with her true friends while staying out of the drama. I tell her to focus on her real friends, make new ones and think of how much fun she has with them. My youngest has no problem standing up for herself, but she feels things very deeply. Ride the storm with her when situations arise, always getting her to remember all the good stuff and fun times.

Ease self-pressure. In most ways, I'm not as worried about my second oldest. She's strong, independent, intelligent and has no problem standing up for herself or to walk away from what she doesn't want in her life. She's also surrounded herself with a small crowd of girls who have the same goals as she does, so in those areas I don't see a problem. Her anxiety sets in with pressure she puts on herself to get the best grades and is truly hard on herself when she isn't...perfect. I remind her constantly that just because she gets a 'B' in something (she's a straight 'A' student but 'B's' have happened occasionally), doesn't mean she failed. Sometimes teachers can be very strict with grading, no matter how 'perfect' a project is or how hard you study. Keep telling a child with this level of anxiety is that the only person who puts this much pressure on her is herself. I tell her to keep doing what she's doing, do the best she can and I'll always be proud. (Of course, the way this is worded is age-appropriate. My daughter is turning 14 so we can be a bit more shoot-from-the-hip, in a gentle way.)

The only other thing I can share is that if your child is starting High School, it's a good time to reiterate some of the issues they've probably already been exposed to (eg. drugs, drinking, getting into the wrong crowd, sex, etc.). Obviously, the don't want to hear these things. They'll always tell you, 'I know, mom', but they honestly think they are invincible at this age. Let them make mistakes. If they experiment with things, it's scary but a simple steer in a more positive direction can help. They don't want lectures, they just need to know you'll be there even if they mess up or make a bad choice or decision. Trust me, even though they say they don't need you, they still do. Just in a different way.

Like anything else, it's a transition and it can be a difficult one for some kids. Be there, be strong, let go and trust that all the tools you've given them up until now will sink in.

Good luck!

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