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School Anxiety? 7 Phrases to Calm First Day Nerves

The start of the school year can be a really exciting time. New classes, new friends, and brand-new experiences! While the novelty of a new school year can be fun, there are many kiddos who feel the opposite. For some, all the new changes and unknowns may be really uncomfortable. 

As adults, it’s much easier to recognize anxiety and know that it shows up in different ways. For our kids, they just know it feels uncomfortable! But anxiety isn’t necessarily bad. The things we feel when we are anxious are ways our body communicates to us. While everyone handles these big feelings differently, helping our kids acknowledge, understand, and ride the wave of these emotions can help them become stronger and more resilient in future experiences.

As you and your child prepare for the new school year, here are some tips to help learn about these big feelings and manage the changes together.

1.       “I love you. You are safe.”

Why this works: Being told that you will be kept safe by the person you love the most is a powerful affirmation. Remember, anxiety makes your children feel as if their minds and bodies are in danger. Repeating they are safe can soothe the nervous system.

Children starting school are coming from their safe and familiar home environment to a big unknown. New people, new schedules, new challenges–a lot of new, all happening at once, may cause your child to feel anxious and scared. Reinforce to your child how much you love them, and that they are safe. Let them know you will be there after school to spend time with them. Anxiety is a physical response. Calming words, and calming sounds, along with favorite blankets or stuffies that they can hold on to, can provide a pleasant and sensory grounding experience.  At their core, kids need to know they are loved and that we are there for them.

2.       “Let’s learn more about it.”

Why this works: Let your children explore their fears by asking as many questions as they need. After all, knowledge is power.

Something you can try if your child has anxiety about new experiences is doing research together to discover what questions they may have about the new experience. For example, let’s say you’re planning a trip to the new trampoline park in town. Your child might be wondering: where do you check in? What do you wear? What does it look like? And so on. By researching together, you can help ease those anxieties and help them familiarize themselves with the unknown.

With school approaching, what things can you research with your kids to help them with their own anxieties? Trying to look up their teacher’s photo and pictures of the school. Ask for a picture of the classroom beforehand. Find out if other friends are going to be in your child’s class. There might even be a Youtube video of an event showcasing the school. 

Whatever you come across in your research, the more your child knows about the school, the better they will feel.

3.       “You are not alone in how you feel.”

Why this works: Pointing out all of the people who may share their fears and anxieties helps your child understand that overcoming anxiety is universal.

Anxiety can make you feel like you are the odd one out. Everyone else is calm and cool as a cucumber, while you are sweating in your sneakers. 

Or so you think.

Let your child know that maybe their teacher is nervous, too! After all, they don’t know any of the kids yet. They have a tough job to do–to make sure everyone learns and stays safe. And maybe it’s the teacher’s first year at the school. Regardless, it will be the first day for everyone. You are not in this alone. 

And for the parents sending your kids to kindergarten? It is our first day too. Acknowledge that, respect it, and take some deep breaths. (And your child might not recognize you in the hat and sunglasses 😉 )

4.       “I am proud of you already.”   

Why this works: Knowing you are pleased with their efforts, regardless of the outcome, alleviates the need to do something perfectly – a source of stress for a lot of kids.

“Hey mom, watch this! Mom, are you watching? Watch mom! MOOOM!” 

Kids want us to acknowledge them and be proud of them! The fear of going back to school thinking, “I don’t remember anything!” can be terrifying. Many children experience this and it can help to explain to your child that you are proud of them already. 

Focusing on their effort rather than the outcome can help reduce the pressure of your child wanting to be perfect for you. 

Tie that into what they have done already for school, such as, “You worked so hard getting your backpack ready!” Or, “remember last year how math was tricky and you worked until you got it! Your hard work is amazing!” Comments like this can instill that sense of pride in their work.  When our confidence is low, we all need to be reminded that we are good, and have good to give.

5.       If you gave your feeling a color, what would it be?”

Why this works: Asking another person to identify and describe what they’re feeling when they’re anxious can be really difficult. This can be especially true for children. Asking your child to describe how they feel with a color, gives them a chance to think about how they feel relative to something simple. Follow up by asking why they chose that color.

Remember that anxiety is a physical response. Helping your child think of something concrete, outside of their body, can help them view it differently. A color that represents something is more tangible than, “I just feel bad.” You may be surprised by the color they choose and the associations they make. Ask them what color they’re feeling when they are snuggling with you while reading a story. What color are the feelings when they are playing outside? What color when they think of school? If school feelings are a different color, talk about what would help to change that color to a different, more comfortable color. You might be surprised by their ideas. 

6.       “Tell me about it.”

Why this works: Without interrupting, listen to your children talk about what’s bothering them. Talking it out can give your child time to process their thoughts and come up with a solution that works for them.

Are you a fixer? As parents, we want to fix our children’s problems. When we go into fix mode, we often talk over our kids or miss what is really bothering them. There is so much power in listening, for them and for you. Remember that silence from you is okay. You can encourage them to open up by asking open-ended questions versus yes/no questions.

Instead of, “are you excited for school?” try asking, “what are you most excited for about school?” 

7.       “This feeling will pass.”

Why this works: Often, children will feel like their anxiety is never-ending. Instead of shutting down, avoiding, or squashing the worry, remind them that relief is on the way.

When our children are feeling anxious, they may feel stuck and feel that the uncomfortable feelings they’re experiencing will never pass. Their first instinct may be to hide, run, or cry. It can feel incredibly overwhelming! We can encourage our kids to “zoom-out”, like a lens zooming out from a close-up, and help them recognize that this is just a small blip of time in a much bigger picture. You can remind your child that there is only ONE first day of school for that grade. The first may be hard, but the rest will get easier.

The start of school can feel crazy, stressful, and overwhelming. But with these reminders, we can help our children (and ourselves) find joy and excitement in it. Let your child know you are in this together. Before you know it, summer break will be here again. Hang in there, you got this. 

Having the language to talk to your child about their anxiety is a great first step in helping them transform their relationship with it. Ready to take another step? Check out our resilience programs for kids, parents, and professionals!

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