If you’re like millions of parents across the country, you and your kids are starting to adjust to a new school routine.
You may be lucky enough to have a child who goes to school happily every day. But most families at some point have a few bumps along the way — school anxiety, issues with course material, separation anxiety, or classroom behavior issues.
Children are not small adults. They need time to adjust to new circumstances, and some of what we expect of them pushes their developmental limits. So how can parents tell what is normal and what is not? And what do you do when your child has problems?
Here’s what you need to know to make the transition back to school as easy as possible.
Separation anxiety isn’t just for very young children. Children of all ages can experience it, especially when they first start school or change schools. A few tears on the first day (and in the first week and month) are normal. Parents can ease the transition by:
- Allow children to freely express their feelings. Don’t tell a child how to make them feel or demean feelings of fear or anxiety.
- Stay calm and confident in school.
- keep farewell short.
- Offer reassurance and love.
- Give children simple tools to manage anxiety and encourage them to practice these tools often.
Separation anxiety tends to decrease over time. If not, a therapist can help. Consider seeking help if:
- Your child regularly refuses to go to school.
- Separation anxiety does not improve after a few weeks or gets worse.
- School anxiety affects your child’s behavior at home.
- Your child’s teacher reports that your child does not calm down or adjust after you leave.
Learning and attention difficulties
Your child has spent the summer outside of a formal classroom setting. You may have forgotten some information, gotten out of the habit of paying attention, or developed new fears. Some children pretend they don’t know things they already know until they feel more comfortable in a new environment. You can help them learn by:
- Rewarding effort, not grades.
- Keep open lines of communication with your child about their schoolwork and any problems they are having
- Ask what you can do to support your child at home.
- Creating a quiet, silent, engaged learning space.
Learning and attention difficulties are not behavior problems or decision-making problems. Even if your child doesn’t seem to be trying, there’s always a reason for the problem. Seek help if:
- Your child seems unable to sit still in class.
- Even after the first few weeks of school, your child will continue to struggle.
- Your child’s teacher expresses concern about their attention span or ability to learn.
In children, behavior is communication. No matter how challenging your child is, they are usually not being impish for no reason or in a deliberate attempt to provoke you. Expect some anxiety and hyperactivity in the new school year. You may also notice trouble sleeping, more fighting between siblings, more defiance, and the occasional regression. Your child has had a disruption in their daily routine, which means they may be disrupting your daily routine.
A gentle approach works well. Validate your child’s feelings, but keep the boundary. For example, “You really want to stay up late because you’re having fun, but it’s time to go to bed now.” “You’re angry because I won’t give you more screen time. I know you love your show. But now it’s time to move on to our next task.” Take a deep breath and remain calm. This instills calm demeanor in your children and prevents arguments from escalating. You may need additional help if:
- Your child regularly and frequently throws destructive or violent tantrums.
- You feel like you can’t control your child’s behavior.
- Your child often starts violent arguments with siblings.
- Your child seems chronically distressed.
- Your child’s teacher has raised concerns about their behavior.
About 4.5 percent of children are diagnosed with depression. Many more never receive the diagnosis or treatment they need. Sadness is a normal part of life; Children should be encouraged to feel and express their feelings. This can include temporary feelings of sadness or grief during important transitions, including transitioning back to school.
When your child is sad, offer support and listen. Don’t try to lessen the severity of their suffering or force them to pretend to be happy. Often all they need is a warm ear and a hug. Even when these interventions fail, it is important for parents to remain calm and show their children that they can handle stress. If you panic every time your child gets sad, teach your child that being sad is unacceptable.
Children with depression cannot figure their way out of their negative feelings. It is not your fault. But the sooner you get help, the better. Get help if:
- A child appears to be chronically sad.
- A child does not enjoy activities they once did.
- A child expresses suicidal thoughts or feelings.
- A child gets injured.
- A child seems very angry most of the time. Some children express depression as anger.
We all want our children to thrive, and so admitting that a child is not thriving can be very painful for many parents. You may blame yourself or be frustrated with your child. You might worry that seeking help is just adding one more task to an already tiring to-do list.
The truth is, seeking help makes things better and can quickly relieve your – and your child’s – stress. Admitting there is a problem is the first step in fixing it. The sooner you get support, the easier it might be to get your child back on track.
If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For 24-hour assistance, dial 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or contact the Crisis Text Line by TALKing to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.