With a pit in my stomach, I walked quietly alongside my Mum and my sister as we entered the gates of our new school. This was my fifth primary school, I was going into grade 5. I was feeling anxious, scared (well terrified really), but a little bit excited too. I wondered if it was going to be the same as all the other schools, everyone staring at ‘the new kid’. Will I make friends? Will the teacher buddy me up with another student? What if the teacher is really mean? Will I fit in? – at least my big sister was also new and only in the next classroom.
These feeling are real and unfortunately becoming increasingly ‘the norm’ for our teenagers.
We often think of those “first day of school nerves” as something you only feel on your first day of day-care (if you can remember), the first day of kindergarten, or the first day in prep; however, the unknown produces anxiety for all of us. Whether you have young ones beginning their school journey or like me, starting at a new school, or transitioning from Primary School to Secondary School, it is important to understand that this anxiety is deeply rooted in the same place – “will I be OK?”
Anxious feelings are normal during times of transition or change, especially for teens going back to school. This transition can be stressful and disruptive for the entire family! Prior to the first day of school, your anxious teenager may be moody, complain of headaches or stomach pains, withdraw, and become sullen and irritable.
For most teens these worries/jitters will fade and the anxious behaviours will eventually stop. As a parent, it’s important to be supportive without exacerbating your child’s worries.
Following are some ideas on how to help nervous kids (and parents) have a successful transition back to school or to their new school.
• Ask open-ended questions, this helps to explore what might be underneath their anxiety. Often kids worry about the advanced level of work and the amount of homework they’re expected to do, especially if they are transitioning to secondary school. Talk about their worries and help brainstorm what kind of practical or emotional support you can offer them.
• Many anxieties are exacerbated by last minute rushing. Spend some time the week before school goes back thinking through the school logistics with your child, things like transport, some may be catching public transport on their own for the first time, do a few ‘run throughs’ in the holidays. Lunch, uniforms, school books and stationary supplies should be packed and ready to go.
• Make sure you listen when your child expresses their anxiety about returning to school, rather than dismissing their fears (“You’ll be fine! No need to be worried about stuff like that”) you need to listen to them and acknowledge their feelings, this will help them feel more secure.
• Build their confidence by helping them strategise about how to handle things they’re concerned about.
• Keep in mind that kids often want to be able to talk about something they’re upset about but they don’t want or expect you to fix it for them. It’s important to validate their feelings (“I know that’s hard”, “I understand why you feel this way”) and demonstrate confidence that they can handle the situation.
• Introduce your child to mindfulness, show them how ‘staying in the moment’ and taking a few minutes of silent breathing can help to ease their nerves and anxiety.
Finally, engage in an open, honest and understanding conversation about what might feel helpful to them. If they continue to feel unhappy or overwhelmed, be open to exploring outside resources with their teacher, school therapist, or your GP. Remember, their feelings will often reflect yours so make sure you are reflecting positive and confident vibes.