British Columbia

How to prevent and cope with children's back to school anxieties

Anyone who's ever had to experience the heartbreak of leaving a crying child behind on the first day of school knows it can be a trying time. Anxiety B.C. has come up with a 12-point plan to help parents support anxious children as summer comes to a close.

Experts say it's important to validate fears and anxious feelings ahead of classtime

Practising morning routines, including walking to the bus stop or following the route to school before the first day can help set children's minds at ease ahead of the return to class, according to Anxiety B.C. (Gerry Broome/Associated Press)

With less than two weeks left in the countdown to the first day back at school, parents may start to notice signs that their children are anxious about returning to the classroom.

Thankfully, experts have a few tools up their sleeves to help the whole family navigate the stressful elements of returning to fall routines.

"The important thing is to try to normalize it as much as possible and then just keep your eyes open," said Melanie Badali, a registered psychologist and Anxiety B.C. Board Director.

Badali said parents should be on the lookout for signs their child is scared or anxious, which can cause adverse physical and mental side effects.

She said an increase in stomach issues, trouble sleeping and a loss of appetite are possible side effects, but added it's important to listen to the language kids are using in the lead up to their return to school.

"Is it a bully on the school yard that they're worried about or is it a bully in their brain?" she said, speaking with Stephen Quinn, host of The Early Edition.

"If it's in their brain, then that's anxiety," she said.

In that case, there are some basic things parents can do to get everyone on track before the big day.

"Start with the basics, the common sense but really difficult to implement things like, get sleep on track," Badali suggested.

Because summer sleep schedules can be erratic it's important not to indulge in the last bastions of freedom, but instead focus on shifting sleep schedules to better reflect the school year routine sooner than later.

A checklist developed by Anxiety B.C. suggests parents involve students in preparation activities such as supply shopping. (Katerina Georgieva/CBC)

12-point plan

If children are displaying what Badali called "school avoidance" and refusing to attend school or begging to stay home, she says it's important to acknowledge their fears while setting firm expectations.

"You really want to validate that feeling. The other thing you want to be doing is you really want to reward the brave behavior and say 'You can handle this. You don't have to like it. It probably is stressful, you're not the only one feeling stressed out but your job for this week is to show up,'" she said.

She cautions parents not to let a pattern of avoidance develop, because avoidance and withdrawal actually maintain and increase anxiety.

"If you are noticing your child is anxious and you let them skip school, that can lead to bigger problems later on," said Badali.

These tips, and many more are part of a 12-point checklist designed by the Anxiety Disorders Association of British Columbia (Anxiety B.C.) to help parents prepare for and prevent anxious behavior.

Ideas include a sort of dress rehearsal or dry run of the first day's route to school and slipping encouraging notes into lunch boxes.

The checklist also suggests parents involve students in preparation activities such as supply shopping, choosing a new outfit, and packing lunch.

"It's really hard as a parent to see your child struggling," said Badlai, who cautioned parents of teens to watch for signs they might skipping school.

"With the teens it's a different story as well. They might not be crying, they might just not go. They get on the bus, you think they're going and they don't," she said.

You can find the full 12-point checklist developed by Anxiety B.C. here.  

With files from CBC Radio One's The Early Edition