School Anxiety: Tips for managing the Stress
The stress of school starting back up
School supply lists, new schedules, new teachers, early mornings, forgetting lunch, grieving the loss of summer, feeling anxious about separating from mom and dad, piles of homework, catching up with friends, bullying, fitting in, and figuring out how in the world to get that locker combination to work are just a few of the long list of things that create stress for both kids and their parents this time of the year.
Anxiety sometimes doesn’t always look like what we imagine. It can also look like anger and defiance, tantrums, zoning out, attention problems or feeling sick and having an upset stomach. In these examples, the body and mind are working hard to try to help a child avoid a situation that he/she sees as unsafe and uncomfortable. However, this does not make life easy for parents or their children who are struggling with this.
Furthermore, especially when anxiety leads to disruptive behavior, responding often lands on parents and school staff who may not have the time or resources to fully support students in managing their anxiety or other mental health needs. A really great audio clip about this topic from NPR states that 1 in 5 kids are dealing with mental health needs and yet, there is no education built into curriculum on how to regulate emotion or maintain mental wellness. You can check that out here: http://www.wnyc.org/story/17-million-young-people-struggle-mental-health-issues/
So, what can you do to help?
While we recommend working with a mental health professional, here are a few tips that can help to ease the transition:
1. Avoid saying “Don’t be afraid. You’re fine.” This unfortunately sends the message to kids that you don’t believe them and that their feelings are not valid. Finding ways to talk about the fears is important and kids need to know that they are allowed to feel worried and that it is normal to have some scary feelings going into a new school year, or any new situation for that matter. After acknowledging it, that’s when you want to help them practice a calming strategy that has worked for them before or a new one that they want to try.
2. Practice calming strategies when calm first. Help your child pick out calming strategies and practice them with your child when he or she is feeling calm. Practicing calming skills when feeling the anxiety can create more anxiety if they don’t feel confident about how to use the skill. That often not only feels like a failure to the child, it decreases the chances that he or she will want to try that strategy moving forward.
3. Transitional or grounding objects can be a big help! A transitional object is something that provides comfort and brings a positive association into an anxiety-producing environment. Blankets and stuffed animals are the most commonly thought of examples. However, lockets, trinkets, journals and clothes that smell like a parent could be less obvious examples. Grounding objects are things that appeal to the 5 senses and help bring us back into the present moment and feel grounded. Worry stones, smelling essential oils, weighted blankets, play dough, and calming music are all examples of ways to ground.
4. Practice the new schedule and keep it regular. We all need structure. If school hasn’t started for you or your kids already, you can try easing into the new schedule by pushing back the wake-up time a little each morning or by switching into the new schedule a week or so beforehand. If school has started already, it helps to stay on target by keeping the schedule, particularly the sleep schedule as regular as possible.
How can Art Therapy help?
Art therapy can be a beneficial treatment for school (or other forms of) anxiety because it allows for the opportunity to move beyond words and address what is scary through metaphor and through methods that may feel safer than just talking about it. Also, the mind and body connection can be worked on more efficiently by creating art about what happens inside the body when anxiety pops up, which is often one of the first steps to learning about how to manage it. Art can also be used as a coping skill and transitional objects can be created in session.
Here’s wishing you a happy and healthy school year!