Every morning when I drop my kids off at school and peel out of the parking lot chanting “Freedom! Freedom!” whilst fist-pumping out the window, I notice at least a few moms lingering at the front doors of the school. They’re peering into the windows and down the hallway lined with short, gray lockers. I know that they’re worried about their babies because I’ve seen them together in the hallway before school holding hands, Mom down on one knee whispering reassurances. My heart goes out to those mothers.
Living with an anxious child during the first few weeks (or months) of the school year can feel overwhelming. My oldest daughter had severe back to school anxiety beginning in Kindergarten and lasting through second grade. It felt at times like it would never get easier. Every day she cried when I left her and it broke my heart.
After school Layla complained about her day, saying she spent a lot of time in the counselor’s office or out in the hallway crying. I sometimes questioned whether her teacher was dealing with her anxiety appropriately. Once she told me that she fantasized about breaking the counselor’s window to escape back to our home. It was torture to see my baby feeling so desperate.
I’m relieved to report that Layla entered fifth grade this year and, three weeks in, she is adjusting very well. I think this year has been different, in part, because she is older and more embarrassed to be seen around school crying. Besides, as a fifth grader, she is no longer such a small fish in a big sea. But I also believe she has learned to manage her own anxiety. She has even gained some confidence over the years.
I believe that confidence is the main antidote to back to school anxiety. When children are afraid, they often to Mom for support. If I could go back in time and give myself one piece of advice to help combat Layla’s anxiety, it would be to exude confidence. I would tell myself to fake it even when I was afraid.
Rest assured that your and your child’s feelings are normal. Every year, millions of parents and children deal with back to school anxiety. Below are some tips about dealing with anxiety that I’ve learned during my decade of motherhood.
Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself
The next time your child gets upset about school, pay close attention to your own demeanor. Are you crumpled in despair, or do you exude confidence?
Make eye contact. Lots and lots of eye contact. Looking away demonstrates fear, so looking your child in the eye shows that you’re unafraid. Plus, it lets them know that you’re really listening.
Stand up straight, shoulders back. The look on your face should be #IGotThis.
Breathe out of your nose, not your butt. Holding your breath or taking too many deep breaths (do you get the nervous farts like me?) makes you appear stressed out. Your child will pick up on that feeling and/or smell that smell.
Use More Ears, Less Mouth
Just listen. When your child is upset, don’t minimize her feelings and don’t tell her how to feel. Absorb her every word, keep making that yummy eye contact. Nod your head. And when she’s finished talking, paraphrase what she has just told you. Your child will appreciate being heard.
Believe That Your Child Will Be OK
Remind yourself that your child is in good hands. In your absence, she will be cared for and protected. She will master her own independence, preparing herself for adulthood. And in the evening, she will return to your loving arms. It’s a beautiful thing that you’re doing for your child. Yay, Mom!
Pass that good feeling along. Tell your child what a brave little asshole she is. After all, bravery isn’t about never being afraid. It’s about facing your fears. Of course, don’t actually call your child an asshole to her face. That would be callous.
Your back to school experience may not be perfect, but it will be manageable. Just keep in mind that things will get easier, and that Contrary Mom is always here to hold your hand. BTW #yougotthis