“Welcome to class, please take your seat and open your ANXIETY to page 2!”

Girl with childhood anxiety reading a school book

Childhood Anxiety and Back to School Blues!

Stress and anxiety can be overwhelming, especially when preparing your child for a new school year.  As parents we lament over all the activities, the to-do list and  the many unknowns and uncertainties that back to school brings.  We have clothes to buy (how in the world did they grow so much in 3 months?), schedules that need to be picked-up, and supplies to be purchased.  What extracurricular activities will they do this fall…did I miss the sign-up?  How much does that cost!?  We are consumed with insurmountable anxiety and overwhelmed with all the thoughts rushing through our heads.  Our kids worry too, and suffer with mental overload!  Childhood anxiety is common.  Many children suffer from this health condition.  Kids suffer from anxiety at a deeper level than adults due to lack of development and poor coping skills.

Meet the Teacher & First Day Success

My brilliant and happy 10 year old daughter suffered with back to school anxiety this year.  Her mind was reeling all summer in anticipation of what she envisioned 5th grade would look like.  Meet the teacher was filled with anxious excitement.  There were smiles all around, big hugs from friends, and victories over locker combination success!  On day 1, she skipped into the building, beaming with confidence.  I eagerly awaited her arrival from school.  She bounced off the bus and could hardly catch a breath recanting her adventures.   There were stories about all things 5th grade; her teachers, classmates and how she got to see her friends between classes.  The first day was exciting, but exhausting!

Day 2 – The Reality

She showed less excitement, but I really didn’t give it much thought, 5:30 am rolls around quickly.  Our after school greeting was starkly different.  Day 2 ended with a deflated and defeated 10 year old.  There were tears of desperation, cries for help, and feelings she didn’t know how to deal with.  Back to school was supposed to be fun for my 10 year old daughter, but we had the back to school blues!

Children in a swimming pool releasing stress & anxiety

It was day 2 that she realized; none of her friends were in her classes.  She didn’t have the opportunity to visit with them during the day.  One problem she struggled with was her class placement.  She expected to be grouped in a high achieving class, which included many of her friends from last year.  Sadly, she was not.  There were lots of new faces, and she did not get to visit with her friends during morning assembly.  She was forced to stare across the gym in the mornings, watching all of her friends laugh and play.  Sitting humbly with her first period class of strangers, she longed to hear the friendly, cheerful banter.  To be included.  Lunch rolled around, and much of the same.  Last year, she was part of that group, part of the fun, sharing and laughing.  My daughter was not just sad, but heart broken and devastated.

This school was different; the students had to remain with their designated classes during morning assembly and lunches.  The reality is, the students are deprived of the opportunity to interact with any social group outside of their classes.  I venture to say it is a cruel and socially irresponsible construct, especially for this developmental age, but that is a whole different topic.

Day 3 – Left Out=Anxiety

Day 3 – She had to be pried away from me with tears streaming down her face as she entered the cold, harsh school building.  She was now lacking confidence and feeling devalued of self-worth. It was gut wrenching to leave my baby with a stranger, crying and insecure.

When did my happy, summer loving child go from confident to crying?

This is not normal, it is childhood anxiety!  There were so many people that told me it was normal, and to just tell her, “It’s fun to make new friends, and you don’t always get to be in class with your friends…” (If you read that with a snarky, nasally voice, then you heard my undertone).  I was frustrated, and heartbroken…and let’s face it… ANGRY!

I have a background in sociology, developmental child psychology and education, and a seasoned 15 year motherhood veteran.  In the undeveloped mind of a 10 year old girl…this “social issue” not only defines her day, her confidence and self-worth, but it also greatly affects her educational environment.  This was evident, as she exclaimed, “I guess the school thinks I am dumb!” (Truth of the matter, she fell through the cracks.)

It was clear, many of the symptoms were present; moodiness, anger, sadness, uncontrolled emotion, fear, worry, self-doubt…my daughter was suffering from Childhood Anxiety.  It is a health condition that affects everyone differently.  This was concerning, by nature, I am a “Fixer”.  I felt the overwhelming need to fix it, but how do I “fix” my child’s anxiety?

The Struggle!

As a mother, I was faced with a new challenge, and an essential desire to help my daughter!  I needed to help her cope with this heart break, and help her find the confidence, and positive mind-set to work through this monster of a storm called anxiety!!  In her developing mind, her self-confidence and self-worth are based on the fact that she has essentially been “LEFT-OUT”! We all know that feeling, and it hurts!  She was left out of the “smart” kid classes, left out of her previous social group, and left to silently suffer alone.  She cried herself to sleep night after night and cried every morning on the way to school.  Often, she had to be pried away from me by administrators and office staff to be walked to class.  Exercise helps anxiety sufferers persevere, and brings hope

Oh the despair to walk next to her and feel the pain she was experiencing.  Her anxiety was manifesting as the back to school blues!

Coping Strategies for Childhood Anxiety

What is a mama to do?  Below is a list of helpful tools that helped me guide her through this anxiety storm.  These suggestions can be helpful for kids to learn, and practice.  They are coping mechanisms that are proven benefits when working through anxious moments, not just back to school anxiety.

The Problem: What does your child’s stress look like?

Identify the problem.  Sit down and talk through the problem or the stressor.  This exercise validates their feelings and lets them know you care.  It is important to help guide your child through their stressful situation.  You and your anxious child will both benefit by identifying all the parts of their situation.  Then help them put their feelings into words.

  • I understand it hurts being in different academic classes than you expected.  It is hard to not be with your friends.
  • Tell me more about how this makes you feel.  Does this make you feel left out, or left behind?  Does this affect your self-confidence?
  • I understand that the school does not allow for socialization outside of the academically driven class groupings.  How does this make you feel?

The Solution: Tools to Tackle Childhood Anxiety

Identify possible solutions.  I find it important to include your child in the solution process.  This helps them with a sense of control, which can induce a calming effect.  It will also provide coping and confidence building skills that will benefit them their entire lives.  These are the solutions we have been trying.

Walk hand in hand through the struggles of childhood anxiety

  • This situation will allow you to make new friends.  I shared with her that some of my best friends were made in junior high, high school, college, and beyond.  It is helpful to give familiar examples.  By sharing a personal story, it shows your child you can relate to them.
  • Focus on the strengths of your child.  You are smart, it gives you the opportunity to be a good leader, you are a great friend, and you can be a teacher helper.  We also came up with some ideas to contact the teachers and see if they need a before school helper, or other ways to help with the transition.  This gives your child purpose and value.
  • Be intentional by scheduling play dates and social opportunities with friends, old and new.  After sharing our journey with Lori and other friends, we organized a way for her to walk to class with friends.  This is a constant battle for me with our busy schedule.  The importance of intentional friendship is valuable even as an adult and it makes us accountable for our relationships with others.
  • Make evening and morning routines as positive, supportive and predictable as possible.  Focus on plenty of time for adequate rest and nutrition.  My daughter loves tea, and we have been adding a warm cup of green tea to her morning routine.  Green tea contains an amino acid known as L-theanine, which works as an anti-anxiety remedy by helping to calm the nerves.   Proper rest and nutrition, and maybe a good cup of tea, are good lifestyle habits that help alleviate stress and anxiety.   
  • Carve out special one-on-one time to make your child feel special. We made matching bracelets, to let my daughter know she is not alone.  Every time she gets sad or anxious she can look at her bracelet and remember how very valuable and loved she is.  Spending time with loved pets can also help ease stress.  Showing your child their self-worth and value is not related to their anxious situation is important.
  • Just Breath.  I have taught her to take deep breaths.  As she exhales, I have her make affirmation statements, “I am beautiful, I am smart, I am a friend, I am funny, I am chosen, I am loved”.  Sometimes we pray as we breath.   Breathing exercises are meditative, and equips your child with tools that will prove beneficial their entire life.

As mothers, we don’t want our children to suffer, and we hurt when they hurt.  Watching your child suffer from childhood anxiety can be excruciating, especially when you don’t know how to help them.  It is important to listen, walk alongside them, and carry them, when they cannot take another step.  It is reassuring to be held and supported through life’s storms.  You are not alone, all mothers want what is best for their children.  We must guide them, and arm them with the tools they will need for their future.  The world can be turbulent and trying at times, and we need to prepare our children.  Teach them how to cope with their stress and anxiety, in attempt to prevent debilitating anxiety storms.

Children that struggle with anxiety, often carry this struggle into adulthood.  This is an ongoing narrative for us, but the tears are drying up, and the confidence is slowly returning.  Teach your kids skills that will turn their struggles into character building strengths.  Don’t let this struggle define them, but mold them.

How do you deal with back to school anxiety?

*This information is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, it is provided for entertainment and educational purposes only.  Depression is a disorder often linked with Anxiety Disorder.  Please seek a licensed medical professional for proper diagnosis and treatment.

About the author: Tanya Goytia is a mother, wife, sister and friend. She is active in her children’s lives, a sports mom and a graduate of Texas A&M University. Her degree is in sociology and her masters work is in developmental psychology and elementary education. She is a regularly contributing author to ADayinMotherhood.com.