Going back to school is exciting, invigorating — and stressful.
What if your first-grade teacher is the meanest person ever? What if you can’t open the lock on your middle school locker? What if you have no one to talk to at freshman orientation?
It’s human nature to feel anxious in the face of change, experts say, but there’s plenty that parents can do to help kids feel prepared for school, from showing small children where the cafeteria and bathrooms are to helping a college freshman come up with a few simple conversation-starters (“Where are you from?” “What dorm are you in?”) to ease those first-week jitters.
“Anxiety decreases when there are no curveballs and no surprises,” says psychotherapist Fran Walfish, author of “The Self-Aware Parent: Resolving Conflict and Building a Better Bond With Your Child” (St. Martin’s Griffin).
Regardless of the age group, experts say, you should listen to your child’s back-to-school concerns without dismissing them. It’s perfectly reasonable to worry about making friends on the playground or sharing a college dorm room with a stranger, so acknowledge what your child is feeling (“It’s hard; it’s scary. I get it.”), try to maintain a calm and confident tone (“I know you will get through this.”) and help your child come up with age-appropriate coping strategies.
Among the tips from our experts:
Push bedtime forward: Establish a school-appropriate bedtime seven to 10 days before the new school year begins, Walfish says. Your kid will have a chance to acclimate to the new routine and will be more likely to be well rested and ready to go on the first day of school.
Prepare your child: Tell your kid a little about what the day’s schedule will be like: “Your teacher will lead you to your classroom, you’ll salute the flag, listen to your teacher read a book.” It’s also helpful to talk about feelings, Walfish says. You might say, “Some people feel a little nervous or excited or scared on the first day. That’s perfectly normal.”
Pay a visit: If possible, have your kid visit before school begins, Walfish says. Show your chld her new classroom if possible. Kindergartners will want to know what their schedule will be, where the bathrooms are and how to get to the gym, playground and cafeteria.
Plan a play date: If your child doesn’t know kids in his class, consider arranging a play date or two before school begins. The principal may be able to give you a class roster; some schools post class lists at the end of the summer.
Get a lock: Sixth-graders tend to focus their worries on the combination locks on their hallway lockers, says psychologist Jennifer Powell-Lunder, co-author of “Teenage as a Second Language” (Adams Media). She suggests purchasing a combination lock for summer practice: “It really brings down a lot of the anxiety.”
Buy strategically: Some kids worry about having the right clothes and accessories, says Michelle Icard, author of “Middle School Makeover: Improving the Way You and Your Child Experience the Middle School Years” (Bibliomotion). You can’t buy everything that’s “in” — and you shouldn’t — but one or two key items can ease the transition. Consider an item that’s used every day, such as a jacket, phone or backpack.
Arrange an outing: If your kid is stressed out by, say, the decline of an important friendship, encourage him to reach out to other kids, Icard says. “You may have to be the parent who says, ‘Invite a few friends to the movies, and I’ll drive.’”
Don’t overreact: Respond to your child’s social stress seriously but not personally. “That’s normal” is a helpful response. “That makes me so sad” is not. You don’t want your child to feel that your happiness rides on her social success.
Do a dry run: Freshmen worry a lot about logistics, says Powell-Lunder: How will they find their classes? Many schools hold summer orientations; if so, sign up. If not, see if you can arrange a visit for your child and a few of her friends. If they have their schedules, so much the better. You may also be able to go online and get a map of the school.
Head off the rumors: If your kid is worried about getting a “bad” teacher, listen attentively to his concerns, then remind him of other rumors he’s heard in the past that turned out not to be true. You may also want to enlist the help of older siblings or discourage their scare tactics.
Keep an eye on bedtime: Teens really need their sleep, so get your child’s sleep cycle back on track before school begins. The National Sleep Foundation website has useful information and advice for parents of teens.
Offer social strategies: Many freshmen worry about fitting in and finding friends, says Joani Geltman, author of “A Survival Guide to Parenting Teens” (AMACON). Listen to your child’s concerns and help her come up with a few conversation starters (“What classes are you taking?”) and maybe another useful phrase or two (“Want to go to dinner?”)
Accept homesickness: Don’t try to rescue a tearful freshman by bringing him home for a weekend visit or arranging for a school transfer, Geltman says. Don’t overreact to normal roommate complaints. Listen, sympathize and express confidence in your child and his coping skills.
Consider the source: With upperclassmen, back-to-school stress can stem from family expectations, Geltman says. Is your kid pursuing a career path because that’s what you want? Is she attending a school that isn’t right for her? If you suspect an academic mismatch, you might say, “You know what, you don’t sound happy with your courses. If this isn’t right for you, let’s talk about that.”