Tip/Thought of the Day

Back To School Jitters

Being a kid is tough work. Learning how to manage different situations and environments, along with learning to control personal behavior can be overwhelming. Now that it’s back to school season, it is an ideal time to remind ourselves of some common childhood anxieties and fears. Staying aware of what kids experience can help us ease transitions. It is up to us to provide kids the tools to persevere through the challenges life presents. Keep in mind your own perspectives and expectations-they can often impact the situation, too. Looking at a situation from their eyes can help everybody move through the moment with less stress.

Here are some common fears by age group:

Children Aged 2-4

  • Separation anxiety-
  • This is a tough one, because around this age many kids will head to Preschool and be eager to do so, but still feel a strong pull for their caretaker. Kids that have already spent time at daycare or group play may transition easier. But, sometimes the shift to longer days apart from home and loved ones is tough regardless. Make time to prepare the child for the change, even visit the school or facility together. Making friends ahead of time creates something to look forward to once the first day arrives- see if the facility has some type of “buddy system” to help welcome new kids to the group. Heading to school or daycare is a new experience for this age group; be prepared if they seek out extra comfort at home to “fill up the tank.” Also think about your own attitudes, fears, or anxieties when dropping them off. Actions speak louder then words. Clutching your child while telling them how safe they’ll be and how much fun they’ll have sends a conflicting message for them to decipher.
  • Fear of using the toilet-

Flushing, bugs coming out of the toilet, and falling in are all common things that strike fear in kids this age. Potty training is still new to them, so talking about their fears, using role play with their favorite stuffed animal, and allowing them to talk through it will help them move past this stage. If they attend preschool or daycare, seeing other kids participate in the same activity is helpful for them to learn it’s ok.

  • Fear of loud noises-

While we are accustomed to sounds like vacuums, fire alarms, and lawn equipment, kids do not always understand the source of the noise. Explore what the item is and how it works before turning it on, if possible. Warning that it will be loud, before it turns on, can be helpful. Being in a school setting also brings its own new noises- talking about things they might hear during the day is one helpful way to prepare.

Children ages 5-7

Fear of not being accepted by peers-

    • Cliques form early, and it can be unsettling at any age. Learning to socialize and how to cope when things don’t go well is not an easy skill to learn. Having open, honest conversations with kids about what they experience, how they can approach a situation, and ways to settle conflict are important. Don’t forget- kids don’t just hear what we say, they learn what they see. In our own lives, adult-sized conflicts can bring adult-sized reactions. Staying aware that kids soak up our responses and model them is essential. If we are impatient, unkind, and unforgiving to our friends, family, and other people, children see that and are likely to reflect those behaviors.

Fear of teachers or authority figures showing disapproval-

  • Many of us probably heard the phrase “I’m so disappointed in your behavior,” at some point or another growing up. The feelings that followed were heavy and upsetting. Kids need to know when they behave inappropriately, but just keep in mind that they need encouragement, too. Communicating disapproval of a behavior, not them as individuals, followed by ways they can improve it, will help them sort out that they can make better choices.

Children ages 8-12

  • Fear of tests-

It is the rare few that don’t experience anxiety around exams and tests. It’s a normal feeling, but new to kids that start taking regular tests at school. Helping kids with prep, encouraging their persistence, and debriefing afterwards builds trust in you as part of their support system. Help them to understand one poor test score does not reflect who they are, or their potential. With encouragement and the proper assistance, that score can improve.

  • Fear of ridicule from peers-

Bullying and intense ridicule from peers is especially on the rise with the existence of the internet and social media. Sharing how hurtful ridicule can be, and the consequences of thoughtless behavior online helps keep kids grounded in the impact of their behavior. If your child experiences bullying, helping them navigate it is essential, and don’t be afraid to partner with their school for additional resources.

Be aware of, and closely monitor, any internet and phone access. Know who they are interacting with and what is being said. Keeping the computer and phone in a central area of the house can prevent problems. Early intervention is often key in warding off issues.

Kids won’t always share that they are having a tough time, so watch for cues.

Signs a child is experiencing bullying are:

  • Not sleeping
  • Not eating
  • Not doing things they once enjoyed
  • Withdrawing from family activities
  • May avoid situations like taking the bus or sports (potentially because the bully is also in those situations).
  • May seem moody or exhibit behavior different than is normal for them

Be persistent if the issue is consistent. Know that if behavior is severe and unwavering, there are laws in many states that protect against bullying.

  • Fear of bad guys-

With more awareness of their surroundings comes a newfound understanding that not everybody is a “good guy.” With constant media coverage around all the negative things in our world, sometimes children experience anxiety and fear about who they can trust. Have the conversation about who to go to if they need help. It can be daunting in a moment of need to also have to figure out who can help. Help them narrow it down- one tip we found was to encourage children to look for an adult with kids and share that they need assistance.

We teach children to behave in public, to use inside voices, and generally maintain a pleasant demeanor. But, they also need to be taught when in need or danger, it is imperative to make noise, get people’s attention, and do whatever it takes to get to safety. Explain that helping strangers no matter the reason, is never ok. Instruct them to be polite, but get to a safe place and find an adult to help them. Somebody asking for directions or for help finding a lost pet seems innocuous, but can be how a predator lures a child away, without a peep.

Children ages 13-18

  • Fear of failure in school or sports-

Kids often experience anxiety around whether they are doing as well as their peers in sports or academics. Sharing your own personal struggles in those areas can help ease concerns. Sometimes helping them foster a relationship with another child that also feels the same way gives them a connection that helps them cope. Asking open- ended questions gives you the opportunity to listen to what makes them nervous and what they fear.

Children, like adults, can also be very competitive. This is healthy, and when channeled correctly, can help build resilience and tenacity. Guidance in establishing a balance between being competitive and being ruthless, is essential. Investigate how the teacher or coach present their accomplishments. Is it an atmosphere of encouragement and camaraderie? When I was young, I used to watch my younger brother play little league baseball. The coach and parents were constantly screaming and berating the boys to play better. Even though they went on to win the championship, I always felt the cost was too great. As a father, my brother took the time to coach his own kids to ensure that they would have a more positive experience than he did. In an environment of healthy, but not abusive, competition his childrens’ teams won as well.

  • Fear of fitting in with their appearance-

In a society built around achieving perfection and social media that portrays an ideal image but rarely the true picture, establishing a positive self- image can be a rickety path for kids to navigate. As we discussed in the post on body image, it’s hard enough for adults, let alone our children. Praising children for their kindness, integrity, and other positive qualities emphasizes that those things are more valuable than what they wear or how their hair looks. But, it cannot be ignored that peer acceptance is an important thing. Sources suggest:

“See if you can help your teenager avoid equating personal worth with physical looks. When appearance is given excessive importance, self-esteem tends to become more fragile, sinking perilously low when a young person resorts to harsh, even self-hurtful, measures to criticize or alter the “packaging” they currently come with.”

Be aware of your own actions and behaviors- avoid mirroring your needs and desires instead of focusing on theirs. Given the right environment, this can be a wonderful time to try on different looks, experiment, and decide what best presents who they are to the world.

Encourage self-appreciation of their positive attributes and model that behavior as well. Be aware of your child exhibiting behaviors in the extreme like sudden, excess weight loss, signs of self- harm, or other physical or emotional signs that may point to serious issues. Seek help from their medical provider or school resources if you have concerns.

  • Fear of violence and global issues-

Information about the world today is always readily available thanks to technology. It is a great resource, but can be overwhelming for some kids. Again, communication is important and open-ended questions and conversations about current events helps kids feel informed and removes the haze around all that is going on.

An undeniable topic in our society today, shootings at school are a terrifying reality for our children. The sheer amount of time kids spend together at school means they are likely to pick up on whether a peer needs a friend, is struggling to fit in, or just needs somebody to hear them. Talk about being the kid that helps their peers fill that need, and how to know when to ask an adult for help.

Share the importance of maintaining communication with the adult leadership at their school if they do feel something isn’t right, just seems out of place, or if they hear about something serious.

Fear and uneasiness provide opportunities to grow, communicate, and learn how to cope with tough situations, all valuable tools for the future. There are many resources available- as a caretaker, you’re never alone. Seek out others for support and help. Childhood is full of learning opportunities, and with the help of a support network, kids will thrive and build life skills that will carry them into adulthood.

    -Dr. Courtney


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