The summer vacation was coming to an end. Nine-year-old Minal, who had been cheerful and lively until then, began feeling agitated and worried. And, when the school re-opening day finally dawned, her home, which had been an abode of peace and tranquillity until the day before, now resembled a war zone. Her mom was busy preparing breakfast, packing her lunch box and issuing commands to Minal like, "Brush your teeth!", "Eat your breakfast!", "Tie your shoelaces!" and "Find your school belt!"
Minal tried her best to keep up with her mom's instructions but it proved too much for her. Unable to take it any longer, she burst into tears and declared that she did not want to go to school.
So, what do you think happened to Minal, a happy-go-lucky child with a loving family, who had a great vacation visiting her grandparents, aunts and cousins?
Minal was experiencing what we call the 'back-to-school anxiety'.
Why do children feel anxious?
Children's brains grow very fast and neuronal connections are established rapidly from birth until the age of 12 years. From the age of 12, children are constantly consolidating and integrating their learning experiences. These new experiences challenge children and adolescents to reach out and explore the world around them. This not only kindles their excitement but also has the potential to evoke anxiety. As a result, children tend to worry about a lot of things around them, including new teachers, friends, peer group acceptance and so on. After a long break, like a summer vacation, some children also feel worried at the prospect of staying away from home. They have irrational inner monologues which increase their apprehension. This can pose problems when it is time for children to restart school after the holidays. Some of the worries and apprehensions that arise in the minds of children at the thought of going back to school after a long break or in the new school year are:
doubting whether there will be a good rapport with the new teacher
missing old friends in the new class
adjusting with new students
being bullied in the class
being ignored by the peer group
having to learn lessons that may be difficult to understand
having to put up with a more demanding routine
How does anxiety affect children?
Usually, children who are anxious tend to eat and sleep poorly; some may overeat and oversleep to cope with the increased level of stress. It is common for anxious children to tell lies and fabricate stories to escape responsibility. They are also prone to temper tantrums, emotional breakdowns, and engaging in behaviours such as nail biting and fidgeting.
For some children, the thought of going back to school after a vacation can be unpleasant and anxiety-provoking. So, they may display some of the behaviours mentioned above. If your child also suffers from back-to-school anxiety, here are 7 ways to help her deal with the issue:
The best way to relieve back-to-school anxiety is to prepare your child well in advance. An open discussion about the upcoming academic year will encourage your child to voice out his fears and anxieties. This cathartic release is vital for children as it helps them overcome their anxiety-provoking thoughts and feelings.
Encourage your child to talk to her friends. This can dispel her fears and make her feel excited about going back to school.
Create a positive atmosphere at home by talking cheerfully about the new school year, and all the happy and good things about going back to school. Narrating your pleasant childhood experiences and sharing the fears you experienced as a child when going back to school will help your child look at things from a new perspective.
Taking your child along for back-to-school shopping and getting things ready for the new school year will make her feel eager and joyful about going back to school.
Help your child plan and organise his back-to-school paraphernalia like school bag, pencil box and stationery. Encourage him to finish this task at the earliest. This will help your child feel confident and empowered.
Begin regulating sleeping and eating schedules at least one week prior to the school reopening day. Ensuring that your child gets enough sleep and eats a healthy diet will help him feel relaxed and calm. Remember, lack of proper sleep and food can make children feel angry, irritable and restless.
Help your child structure his routine. For example, getting the school bags and uniforms ready the previous night to not feel overburdened with tasks in the morning, fixing the wake-up time and so on.
5 Things to never do when dealing with a child with back-to-school anxiety:
Don't dismiss your child's fears as baseless and make deprecating comments.
Don't just tell your child that everything will be okay and that he needs to act like a grown-up individual. Children need to voice their fears to feel reassured. Avoid comparing your child with children who aren't anxious about going back to school.
Keep your negative views about your child's school and teacher to yourself. Never make disparaging comments about the school and teachers in front of your child. This will create a bad vibe and increase your child's fear and anxiety.
Don't get too involved in solving your child's problems. Give him the space and time to figure things out on his own.
Don't get angry or scream at your child in the morning to push her to get ready for school on time. Be a role model for your child by planning your routine and chores, doing everything in a systematic manner, and staying calm and collected. Remember, you can end up projecting your fear and anxiety into your child.
Anxiety is normal in children and gets amplified during times of uncertainty or change. At such times, do not panic and begin judging your child, for she will get over her fears and return to normal soon. However, in case you think that your child's fear of going back to school warrants professional help, do not hesitate in doing so.