It’s August and we all know what that means; kids are going back to school or starting school for the first time! While schooling has gone through many changes since last year, the anxieties and fears that many children feel when starting school have not changed. Knowing how to best navigate this situation can be a very tricky balancing act. We want to console and be there for our children, but at the same time, we don’t want to smother them or become helicopter parents. Knowing when to step in and when to let kids figure it out on their own requires strong emotional awareness, conflict management, and inspirational leadership skills, just to name a few. Let’s dive in and see how these all come into play.
Not SO Scary
There are a lot of possible reasons why a child may fear school. They could be afraid of a bully or riding the bus. They could be afraid of lacking the safety blanket of their parents being around. Negative events around this time like a divorce or a death can reinforce these fears as they begin to believe everything is changing around them and they are powerless to stop it.
Figuring out the underlying reason or reasons triggering their fear is an important part of a parent’s response. One of the single most common causes of this fear is the fact that they’re leaving the safety of home. They’re often used to having their parents around, so it can be scary to leave that environment and be on their own for the first time.
A key thing to keep in mind is that this is usually temporary and a very normal part of growing up. It’s understandable that a child would be scared of leaving behind all these safety blankets all at once, but rest assured this fear usually goes away in time with comfort measures in place and as they learn to be more independent.
But if this fear went away by itself every time then there would be no need for this article. Obviously, every child is different and reacts differently to this major change, but it can be expected that a child may take some time to become fully comfortable with school. There can also be regressions after progress is made, especially when new problems come up like difficulty with lessons, bullying, or disliking a teacher. So let’s dive in to what we can do both before school begins and when these fears come up to make sure our kids get off on the right foot!
Be There for Them
There are so many different strategies that can be helpful for overcoming separation anxiety, but I’d like to start with what parents can do to prepare their children for their first day of school and make it a positive experience instead of a scary one.
Reframing the way we talk about school before the first day can shape the way our kids think about it in the first place. Instead of framing it as a big change and something daunting, frame it as an exciting adventure and something new, like a new toy. Tell them about how they will get to play new games, create their own art, eat their favorite foods that they’ll be taking to school with them, play with other kids, and have story times throughout their day at school.
By talking about specific fun things that will await them in school, their perspective on the experience is likely to shift in a major way and they will be less fearful of the experience in the first place. Be careful to only mention things that you know they’ll actually experience. An example of this is to say that they will get to play with other kids instead of saying that they will make new friends. They might not feel like they’re making new friends right away and we don’t want to set any expectations that will cause them to then be disappointed if they’re not met.
It’s also important to be close to them until the moment it’s time to separate for the day. They will likely have a lot of questions during the lead-up to school and probably right up to the point you say goodbye. Give them simple answers to their questions giving them the amount of information that they’re seeking but no more than that. They will ask more questions if they’re needing more reassurance and information and it’s always a good idea to ask them if you answered their question, inviting them to continue the conversation.
Tips that can make drop off go more smoothly are bringing along a comforting object for your child to have with them like a favorite plushie, blankie, or book and having a goodbye routine such as a hug and kiss while saying “I love you and I’ll see you later alligator.” Then it’s best to scoot right along and go your own way. Delayed goodbyes and ones that vary every time you drop off your child at school can make the separation harder. It’s really important not to sneak away or make comparisons like, “See Ryan? He doesn’t cry when his mommy leaves.” It’s always important to honor your child’s process and reassure them that their emotions are okay to experience. If they hold their emotions inside and don’t cry when they need to, then they’re likely to act out their emotions after the fact as they try to process them.
Another reassuring thing for a little one is a reminder that their parents are with them always. Notes in their lunch or little surprises in their backpacks will let them know that they are still in your thoughts. This will provide them a small sense of that safety they feel at home without smothering them in affection or you having to be there with them in person. And who doesn’t like feeling loved and remembered?
Reassuring them and providing positive affirmations about their bravery will also help them, no matter what their reaction is. Saying things like “You’ve been so brave today!” and “I’m so proud of you!” can go a long way. Your kids will know you’re on their side and looking out for them. More than that, when you recognize them for doing well with a big change, you are encouraging independence and showing them that overcoming new and challenging things is a difficult, but rewarding part of life.
For further advice, check out this Very Well Family article. They offer lots of advice from designating an ally at the school, to altering their schedule to include more things they enjoy, to reassurance, to fostering friendships so they don’t feel alone, and the list goes on. Unfortunately, it’s always possible that none of this will work. At that point, what you’re probably dealing with is something else entirely and something that will require you to get outside help.
Fear or Phobia?
Fear of school is a very common thing in childhood, but knowing when it is a normal part of growing up and when it is a legitimate phobia requires us to be aware of our child’s typical emotions and behaviors. 2-5% of schoolchildren have a diagnosable phobia of school.
The thought of going to school can trigger panic attacks and cause great mental distress in these kids and can last well into their teenage years and beyond. In these extreme cases, there can be numerous underlying causes that trigger the child’s fear. Being able to identify and express fear and related emotions in a healthy way is a foundational skill of emotional intelligence and is extremely beneficial, especially when facing a challenging situation.
Knowing our children and the severity of their fear is key to pinpointing the most appropriate response. The type of fear of school I want to focus on here is not the diagnosable phobia, though much of this advice will also be applicable towards easing Didaskaleinophobia.
If you’ve tried the advice in this article to no avail and weeks and months have gone by with no easing of your child’s separation anxiety, then you’re probably facing a much larger issue. It’s at this point that professional help will most likely be necessary either through a child psychologist, a school counselor, or a combination of professionals. Keep in mind that just because what you’ve tried hasn’t worked doesn’t mean you have failed. All it means is that the issue is larger than you can deal with on your own and by recognizing that and partnering with professionals to determine the best care for your child, you’re doing everything in your power for your child.
School can be a scary place for little ones. For many it’s the first time they’re leaving home for a long period of time and there are all sorts of new challenges and fears to confront without parental supervision. The important thing to remember is that it’s often temporary and it’s a necessary part of growing older. It can be so reassuring to just know that there is a plethora of good advice and useful suggestions here in the Hoppy & Poppie PinkCheeks EQ Blog and elsewhere, if ever needed. Let me know how your kid’s first days of school go. I’m so curious to hear all the stories and adventures.