What You'll Learn
- The Two Components of Anxiety (and Why We Focus on the Wrong One)
- How to Lead Our Children Through Difficult Situations
- Preparing Our Kids vs Overprotecting
- The Role Our Own Anxiety Plays in Back-to-School Worries
- How to Help Kids Cope With School Anxiety
Starting school can be very exciting for many kids—but it can also be scary. We want to protect our kids, so when we see them worrying or anxious, we want to support them. But how do you help your child with school anxiety?
Today, I’m joined by clinical psychologist Dr. Becky Kennedy, founder of Good Inside, to discuss anxiety about starting school, our role in it, and how to support our children if they’re feeling apprehensive.
(This is the second blog post of our 3-part back-to-school series. Don’t miss part one on kindergarten readiness with Susie Allison of Busy Toddler and part three on supporting your child through transitions with Jess VanderWier of Our Mama Village.)
School Can Be Scary—For Us and Our Kids
My youngest son is starting Junior Kindergarten this year. And with each of my three boys, I have wondered…Is he REALLY ready? Will he make friends? Will he be safe? Will he be able to wipe his own bum at school?
But each of my boys ended up loving school very early on. Looking back, it’s clear to me that I was more worried than they were.
Starting school is inevitably a time of change, and change is often scary. Many of our children feel uncertain, worried, or anxious about starting this new chapter. It’s normal and natural to want to protect our children from that discomfort.
It’s normal and natural to want to protect our children from that discomfort.
But we often go about that protection the wrong way. Instead of helping our children cope with school anxiety, we end up either contributing to it with our own worries accidentally or falsely “reassuring” them that everything will be just fine. Neither of those reactions helps set our children up to cope with their anxiety.
I was excited to welcome Dr. Becky Kennedy back to the podcast to discuss how to approach school anxiety and practical ways we can support our children when they struggle with the idea of heading to school.
The Two Components of Anxiety (and Why We Focus on the Wrong One)
If we’re going to help our kids with anxiety, we have to understand what it is and why it’s happening. Many of us know anxiety when we feel it, but struggle to define it.
Dr. Becky views anxiety as a simple equation: uncertainty of the future plus underestimation of our ability to cope.
She pointed out that anxiety always stems from uncertainty. When we have a problem in front of us, we aren’t anxious—we cope with it because our brains are programmed to. But when we face uncertainty, our brains want to figure out the next thing to do—and that’s when anxiety starts.
When we’re anxious, we try to solve the wrong side of the equation.
Dr. Becky said that when we’re anxious, we try to solve the wrong side of the equation. We want to take away the uncertainty, so we might read article after article about a topic or ask a lot of questions. But the truth is, we can’t solve the uncertainty part.
What we can do is remind ourselves of our coping capabilities—we’ve all been through hard things before, and we’ve gotten through them. We’re capable of navigating tricky situations (we just have to remind ourselves of that ability sometimes).
So when we want to support our children through anxiety, we need to similarly focus on the right side of the equation. Dr. Becky said that we should help prepare our children to take away some of the uncertainty, but we should put more energy and attention on the coping side.
If a child is apprehensive about school, we can say, “You know what I know? You’re a kid who has done tricky things before. We don’t look to do things perfectly in this family—we look to get through them and talk about them. I’m here to talk with you about it, and I know you’re going to get through it.”
How to Lead Our Children Through Difficult Situations
When our children experience anxiety, it’s easy to panic ourselves and wonder how they’re going to get through it. But Dr. Becky said that we need to take on the role of the leader, like a pilot of a plane.
If you were on a plane and saw stormy weather outside, you wouldn’t want a pilot to come over the intercom and say, “Oh, I really don’t know—this looks really scary. I’m not sure if we can handle it.” But you also wouldn’t feel safe if the pilot said, “Nothing to worry about here, we have a beautiful sunny day that we’re going to fly right through with no issues!”
Either way, you wouldn’t feel like you could trust them.
However, if the pilot said, “It looks like we’re going to have some stormy weather. It’s going to be bumpy at times but I will get us through it safely,” you would feel reassured.
Our children look to us to guide them. We want to be honest with them while reminding them that they have what it takes to get through difficulty.
Dr. Becky said that there are two steps to help lead our children through anxious times. Step 1 is to know ourselves (if we’re on the anxious side, we might need to work to regulate our own nervous system). Step 2 is to think about the pilot you would want to see and emulate that.
We want the pilot who tells us there will be turbulence but that we’re going to be safe.
For example, we could say, “You’re starting school, and new things can be tricky. Let’s talk about it so you know what to expect. And you know what? I know you’re going to end up loving school (maybe right away, but maybe not right away). But I also know that I will be here to talk about the things that feel tricky. We get through things by talking about them and that’s what we’re going to do.”
This helps our children know that there will be bumps, but that we will listen and support them as they work through them.
Preparing Our Kids vs Overprotecting
Sometimes when we think about our children struggling, we want to take away whatever will cause that struggle. But that is not always possible, and it’s also not the best approach.
Dr. Becky said it’s not our job as parents to remove every hurdle—it’s our job to equip them to withstand the discomfort and navigate life. Our little ones face frustration, hesitation, worry, and fear. But when they get older, they will still face those same emotions (often with higher stakes).
We want them to teach them coping skills when they are young so that they can manage in the future when they continue to deal with discomfort.
It might hurt to see our kids get left out of something, but they will likely face situations as adults where they feel left out. It might hurt to see them get called a name, but they will likely meet people in the future who are unkind. We want them to know how to get through those moments.
We want our children to know how to get through those tough moments.
I recently faced a situation where I wanted to take away one of those hurdles for my son. He was at summer camp and an older child showed him a video that scared him.
My first instinct was to pull him out of the camp. But I had to make myself take a step back and stay calm. I wanted to show him how to navigate the situation. I let him know that I believed his words when he said he was scared, but that when we are upset or scared we can work through it.
I’m glad that I didn’t go with my knee-jerk first reaction. He had a couple of nights of bad dreams, but he ended up loving camp. If I would have taken him out, I would have shown him that he couldn’t handle fear—that the answer is always to run away.
The Role Our Own Anxiety Plays in Back-to-School Worries
So often, our desire to remove the hurdles actually stems from our own distress. We think we’re responding to our children’s fears. But we are really trying to alleviate our own discomfort.
Unfortunately, when we always shut down whatever causes our children distress, we don’t give them chances to learn to emotionally regulate. Dr. Becky said this creates a “legacy of intolerance.” It teaches them to shut off their emotions instead of working through them.
We all do this sometimes—and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. However, if we want to help our children build resilience and coping skills, we need to work on viewing our children’s discomfort not as a hurdle to take away, but as an opportunity for learning and growth. We have to see our kid as capable before they can see themselves as capable.
It can be hard to sit with discomfort. But Dr. Becky said that self-talk can help. If you feel yourself tensing up or reacting when your children seem upset about something that happens at school, remind yourself, “I am safe. This is not an emergency. I don’t have to do anything right now.”
When you're anxious, you have tunnel vision.
Sleeping on it is another great strategy for coping with your own anxiety and distress. Often you find that by the next day, you don’t feel the same level of panic over a situation. When you're anxious, you have tunnel vision. But taking the time to step back can help widen your vision and help you see the big picture.
How to Help Kids Cope With School Anxiety
But how do we help our children when it actually is their anxiety? Many children really do feel anxious about school.
There are several ways to support your children in this situation. Dr. Becky said that it’s important to empower them with information.
About a week before school starts, begin talking about what school is going to look like, what will happen at drop-off, what the schedule will be like. She likes to make the teacher feel like a familiar figure instead of a stranger. (“Oh, Mr. Smith would really love hearing about this…Mr. Smith is going to be reading you books too…”)
They will likely have a lot of questions for you. But Dr. Becky said that sometimes when kids ask questions they are seeking useful information. However, sometimes, their question isn’t really a question—it’s fear.
Sometimes, their question isn’t really a question—it’s fear.
If your child’s questions keep going and going, this might be the case. Dr. Becky said that we shouldn’t answer questions when they aren’t really questions—then we’re playing into whatever is really going on.
When this happens, she recommends a strategy of talking about what you know and what you don’t know.
For example, you could say (in a calm, matter-of-fact voice), “I want to say something to you. It’s a little tricky, but you’re a kid who can understand tricky things. I’m not answering any more questions because I don’t think they’re really questions. I think something else very real is happening.
I think you’re saying you’re nervous because there are a lot of things you don’t know about school. I want to go over a few things. I want to tell you about the things we know and the things we don’t know.
Here’s what we know. Tomorrow is your first day of kindergarten. You’re going to be in class with Mr. Smith. I’m going to drive you to school. We are going to get out of the car and do the good-bye routine we practiced. Then you’ll go to class. At some point you’ll have lunch and recess, and then later I’m going to pick you up.
Here’s what we don’t know. We don’t know what kind of blocks there will be. We don’t know how many kids will be in class or what their names are. And we don’t know what the snack will be.
We know that we always have a lot of questions when we start something new. But we know that not knowing everything is part of starting something new, and we’re a family who can get through things like this because we support each other.”
Dr. Becky said that naming what we don’t know is powerful. It shrinks it down so that it seems manageable. It’s easier to handle than just hearing, “I don’t know.”
Naming what we don’t know is powerful.
This type of conversation tells children that they are capable of getting through tough situations, that you are on their side and will support them, and that it’s okay that they don’t know everything about what’s going to happen.
We don’t want them to think they need to control their environment—we just want them to know that we are there for them as they get through it.
For more about helping your children prepare for school, catch the rest of our 3-part back-to-school series: part one on kindergarten readiness with Susie Allison of Busy Toddler and part three on transitions with Jess VanderWier of Our Mama Village.
If you’re feeling anxious, worried, or unsure, a mom therapist can help. Book your free 15-minute consult at our Wellness Center today!