Back to School Anxiety

btsDr. Corinne Masur and Dr. Erin Hadley

For parents, the end of summer and the start of the new school year can be either a relief or a source of anxiety – or both!

Many parents are more than ready for their children to go back to school in the fall.  It can feel like everyone is tired of each other after a summer of being at home together or traveling together.  Without the routine of the school year, it can be hard for parents to come up with new and interesting activities to keep everyone happy.

On the other hand, when children and parents have to leave the more leisurely pace of summer behind return to daycare, school, or work, a great deal of anxiety can be felt.  Starting a new grade or going to daycare or school for the first time can be hard.

It’s important for parents to avoid getting lost in their own anxiety over school supplies, new clothes, and medical forms and, instead, remember that new things can be very difficult for children.  

Transitions are hard for all of us.  Do you remember your first day of school?  Or maybe your first day of high school?  Or even your first week at college?  It’s helpful to bring these feelings to mind when you try to imagine what your child feels setting off in the fall.

There are so many things to be worried about: “What will it be like without Mommy or Daddy?”  “Will I be able to find my way around?”  “What will my new teacher be like?” “Will I be in class with kids I know?”  “Will anyone like me?”  “Will I make friends?”  “Whom will I sit with at lunch?” And the dreaded, “Will I remember my locker combination???”

So many adults imagine that childhood is a happy, peaceful time.  But actually, childhood is fraught with as many worries and fears as any other time in life.  In order to help our children, we need to try to get into their mindsets to help them to anticipate what they will encounter and empathize with what they may be feeling.

This sort of reflection is what Peter Fonagy, the British child psychologist, means when he talks about “mentalisation.” He says that it’s important for optimal development for parents to imagine what their children are thinking and feeling and to keep these feelings in mind in their everyday interactions with their children. In doing so, parents model mentalisation for their children and help their children to develop this capacity. According to Fonagy, children who are able to reflect on their own feelings and to predict the feelings of others are better able to develop self confidence and a healthy sense of self.

So this fall, while you’re doing all your shopping and planning for school, use that car ride or dinner table conversation to talk about what your children are feeling about starting the new year. Make suggestions about what you think they MAY be feeling, especially for your kids who are less able or less willing to talk about feelings. And if your children are too young to talk about this, remember to talk to them about what you imagine them to be feeling.  Even infants and toddlers benefit from parental empathy and anticipation of feelings!


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