Back to School: Back to friends, learning, excitement…and ANXIETY?!

Dr. Vanessa Lapointe, R. Psych.
Wishing Star Founder

The last week of summer for me has been spent soaking up these long, lazy, warm days. As I look forward to back to school time next week, I am aware that alongside that little seed of excitement I also have some sadness. I am a teeny bit resistant to the daily grind, and I am a whole lot resistant to the idea of having so much less time with my children! It occurs to me as I think through this jumble of feelings that I am an adult – and I like to think a pretty capable one at that – who is struggling with this time of year. What must it be to be a child?!

Imagine that you are 6 years old or 9 years old or 12 years old. And then imagine that you are maybe a bit sensitive. But you don’t want people to see that part of you so you often mask it with bravado, or a façade of being the class clown, or by just trying to fade into the background. Imagine that in your sensitivity you are keenly aware that “all” of the other kids in your kindergarten class could read by the end of last year and you couldn’t; or that all the other kids in your Grade 3 class were super sporty and you aren’t; or that you weren’t part of the “it” crowd in your Grade 6 class.

Imagine that in your sensitivity, you literally are ready to explode at the seams with your unrest about feeling “not smart,” “not sporty,” “not cool.” Last year, you dealt with that by being extra wiggly, even appearing “hyperactive” at times, being a little high energy when quiet would have been more appropriate, maybe a little silly, or sometimes just by pulling back and withdrawing. Your teachers were a little baffled – not knowing what was really up with you. Sometimes this earned you a raised eyebrow or two. At worst, it earned you an admonition or two (or three or four…). And so your sensitivity continued, and all the inner turmoil that comes with that continued, and all the outer turmoil that comes with all of that also continued.

And then summer arrived. Whew!! What a relief. You got to take a big deep breath. You got to let loose and ride bikes all day, play outside, swim for hours, and settle into the safe, warm, predictable routine of being at home for 10 whole weeks. You can literally see the sensitive child nestle into the contentment of summer – no pressure to perform or step up in all the ways that are uncomfortable or difficult. And then…the first autumn leaf floats to the ground and summer comes to a screeching halt.

As parents, you will start to get the questions – how many more sleeps? Who will be in my class? Are you sure? How do you know? What if my teacher isn’t nice? What if I don’t know anyone in my class? How will I know which bus is mine? I heard that teacher is the strict one? And so on.

Your child might get quieter or become upset more easily. Sleep can begin to be disrupted. Your child might be asking to crawl into bed with you when they maybe typically sleep on their own. A night at grandma’s or with the babysitter becomes the WORST possible thing in the world when only 3 weeks ago it was the best thing. Sibling chaos ramps up and disagreements are more frequent. And as a parent, you look around and think: a) what happened? ; and/or b) thank goodness they are back to school next week!

The reality is, this is a hugely stressful time of year for kids. It is tricky sometimes to manage it as a parent who is arguably much more capable of sorting through all the related emotions. But when you are a child, it can be utterly overwhelming. The science of child development has taught us that there is but one meaningful way to ride out this storm for a child – and that is to BE CONNECTED to them.

This connection means that you as parent (or any other ‘big person’ in a child’s life) are standing back, quietly assessing the situation, “feeling” your child, and moving on their behalf to take care of things. This may mean that you are spending more quiet time together in the evenings. It may mean that you are giving them a “piece” of you to hold onto while they sleep, or while they are at school. It may mean that you are gently stepping in to facilitate connections between yourself and other parents in the class, and via those parents, facilitate connections amongst the children in the class. It may mean that you are “matchmaking” your child to their teacher…and their teacher to your child. It may mean that you are pulling back a little (with gradual entry or other such approaches) rather than charging in full tilt.

Whatever it is, the playing out of ‘connection’ with your child is subtle, persistent, enduring, and calm. It is not paraded or applauded but quietly moves in the background to take care. This kind of connectedness leads to your child feeling like you do really get them. You are really in charge here. Things really are going to be okay. And with that sense of things, your child can stand a little taller, breath a little more deeply, and will weather this storm just fine.

So what is the answer to how to manage back-to-school anxiety? The answer is to be a highly attuned and conscious parent. A parent who relies on the strength of their connection with their child to inform navigation of this tricky time of year. For it is this kind of parent that is beautifully positioned to calm September worries and pave the way for true growth, learning, and development.

This blog posting is not a form of psychological counselling, advice, therapy, or assessment and should not be used as such by any individual. This blog posting is provided only as an article intended to encourage thought and discourse. For specific psychology related services, please contact an appropriate healthcare provider.