My child is nervous about starting school - what can I do?

Health Writer

The following group of blog postings are address the very unique feelings that younger children, teens and parents can feel when September rolls around and school begins.

First up - the little ones.

Starting school for the first time can be extremely wonderful and magical.   It can also be a period of time fraught with anxiety.   Imagine what may be going on in your child's brain:

  1. Who's going to take care of me because mommy (daddy) won't be there?
  2. What if no one likes me?
  3. What if I don't feel like sharing?
  4. How will I fall asleep for a nap away from home?
  5. What if I can't find the bathroom?
  6. What if mommy forgets to pick me up?

These are just some of the thoughts your child may be having as they put on their special school outfit and grab their shiny new lunch box, and these feelings are quite natural if your child is starting pre-school or kindergarten.   Maybe this is the very first time your child will be away from you.   Maybe they have had play groups and some issues of fair play came up and you rescued them, so their perception is, "who will rescue me now?"   Certainly separation anxiety is fairly common and only becomes worrisome if it does not subside within the early days of school.   The incidence of separation anxiety is a bit higher among younger kids when compared to older kids.   It's also important to realize that milder anxiety can be masked, while children outwardly appear very excited and very animated about starting school.   It's clearly a lot easier to notice anxiety associated with beginning school if children show frank signs of fear or agitation.   Common complaints can include:

  • Unwillingness to get out of bed, resistance to getting dressed
  • Nightmares or difficulty going to sleep
  • Clingy behavior
  • Stomach aches
  • Headaches
  • An isolated bathroom accident, sudden bed wetting
  • Sudden change in behavior (tantrum, hitting, breaking something)

It becomes a bit more serious when your child begins to obsess about leaving you, worries out loud about your safety, refuses to go to sleep without you close by, cries at school and shows excessive signs of homesickness.   Escalating physical symptoms can also be a clear sign of serious separation anxiety.   In those cases you may have to seek professional help.   But more often than not, communicating and answering your child's fears with calm and clear answers, taking them to visit their new school ahead of time, making play dates with some of the new children they will meet before they start school, mapping out their day so they understand how long they will be in this new environment, making sure they know who will pick them up or how they will come home, can go a long way to help alleviate mild school anxiety.

You can also share your own stories of school and how you dealt with your own anxiety.   Teaching your child some beginning concepts of meditation like deep breathing to help calm their fears and allay anxiety can be really helpful.   This kind of "mindfulness" can help them also cope independently with academic and social pressures.