by John Hoffman (originally published Aug 17, 2016)

Editor Note: While this years’ return to school is different, the principles outlined are still valuable for all parents. The suggested practical steps in the article may differ given COVID-19, so please follow all health and safety guidelines when looking to implement helpful strategies.

Here we are nearly through August and that means we’ll soon be seeing the usual round of media advice about how to get kids ready for “back to school.”

I sometimes think we make too much of a big deal about the back to school thing. I mean, this is something that happens every year, with millions of kids. I don’t think we need to turn this normal experience in into an “issue.”

Sure, some of the standard getting ready for back to school advice makes sense. If you child has been on a later bedtime/wake time schedule, it makes sense to start easing the bedtimes a little earlier the week before school. And with young kids, who are just starting school (or just starting grade one), it’s a good idea to talk them about what happens at school and what they can expect. But my impression is that most kids adjust to going back to school just fine, regardless of what their parents do or don’t do.

Having said that, getting ready for back to school can become a true issue if your child is anxious about school. Research shows that today children are dealing with much higher levels of anxiety compared to kids of previous generations. Some experts call it an epidemic. So it figures that school, being such a big part of children’s lives, would be a source of anxiety for some kids.

So how can you help kids with that? Well, I’ll start with my personal #1 rule about dealing with any sort of child problem.

Don’t make it worse. Seriously.

I’ve observed, over and over again, that the things adults do to try to deal with children’s problems often do make things worse. One particular challenge around anxiety is that our children’s anxiety makes us anxious. If kids pick up on our anxiety about their anxiety that usually makes them even more anxious. One not-so-great way adults deal with their own anxiety is to try to talk children out of being anxious. We say things like, “Don’t worry,” or “You’ll have a great time at school,” or (my personal favourite) “Don’t be silly.” It doesn’t usually work very well does it, except maybe to get kids to hide their anxiety from us. And that’s not good either.

So, it’s important to deal with our own anxiety. Talk to your partner (if you have one) and friends about the situation. Get their support and ideas. Help yourself feel supported and more hopeful. That puts you in a better state of mind for helping your child.

And you need to be in the best possible state of mind, because supporting anxious kids is tricky. It requires walking a fine line between acceptance and detachment. Kids need to see that we understand and accept their anxiety, and that we don’t think they are weak or deficient because of it. But at the same time we don’t want to feed their anxiety by paying too much of attention to it.

Kids need to see that we understand and accept their anxiety, and that we don’t think they are weak or deficient because of it.

One way we inadvertently feed anxiety sometimes is by pressuring kids to explain why they feel anxious. They often can’t explain it and the pressure can add to their burden. This can be a tricky one for dads because we men tend to like to zero in on exactly what the problem is so we can solve it. But with anxiety, I think a more subtle approach is better. For most kids, anxiety is sort of grey as opposed to black and white.

One strategy you can try is finding ways to talk positively about school. I wouldn’t try to “sell” school to an anxious child. But talk about school sometimes, in positive terms. And give your child openings to contribute to the conversation. That increases the chance that a kid might open up and talk to you about their anxiety.

Another thing you can try is helping your child reconnect with their school friends, if they haven’t been seeing those friends during the summer. Knowing that they will be with their friends is one of the things that really helps kids feel comfortable about school.

If your child is anxious about starting at a new school, you could go there together before school starts and take a look around. Don’t make a big deal about it. Just say, “Hey, let’s go check out your new school.” You can walk around and look in the windows or let your child play in the playground. If your child is too old for playgrounds, take a ball or Frisbee and play catch or soccer. The idea is to help the school feel a little less strange and uncomfortable.

One more thing you might try is taking your child to meet the teacher before school starts. Most teachers are in the building setting up their classrooms the week before school. I’m sure they don’t mind if the odd parent and child drop by to say hi. Connecting with the teacher may help a bit.  And if your child’s anxiety continues to be a problem, you and the teacher will need to work together on it.

But overall, the idea is doing little things that help your child feel normal, comfortable and emotionally safe about school. Most kids do just fine, and after a week or two, school days feel normal again. If not, you may need to get some help. Anxiety problems, including school anxiety, are very real for some kids, and their aren’t always quick and easy solutions. Anxious kids need a lot of support, and they need the adults in their lives to work together to help them.