How to Kick the Anxiety That Comes with the School Year Kickoff
By Dr. Jay Greenfeld
The summer comes to an end and that means a few things for most students and parents. It means the freedom and fun of being outside all day and not needing to focus on homework or waking up early to go to school. However, as we learn quickly most good things will come to an end at some point. As the month of August often defines itself as the Sunday of the summer months, the preparing for the start of school year begins. Of course it does not help much that the back to school sales start sometime in July. As exciting as it can be for many that back to school means seeing friends you have not seen in months, returning to your favourite after school activities and sports, and the excitement of new classmates. For many, returning to school can be very Anxiety provoking for both children and parents alike. We often get the feeling around the office that school is coming as the quietness of the summer ends and the traffic and volume at the office resumes. Often times the most Anxiety provoking aspect of the school year start is to make sure your student is ready on opening day and the weeks following. There are many steps that can be taken to help prepare for the illustrious opening weeks of school, for both parents and children.
One of the most important things to start with is ensuring that both parents and students are on the same page with their expectations and their goals for starting and staying organized. For example, ensuring that your children know the importance of starting the year organized and how they can have control over how they prepare the night before will be imperative. Having their book bag ready, their lunch packed, and their clothes out so when they wake up, the process of getting ready does not become a five act play. As a parent, you can openly inform your children why it is important to be prepared the night before and then initially have them pack their lunch with you, have their belongings by the door with you, and select the appropriate clothing with you. Eventually, you can outline the 5 things they need to do to be ready for the morning and then have them pick the order. It would then be important to go over their day ahead with them so they know what is coming up. The less they have to anticipate, the less likely they are to over inflate ideas in their head of what might happen. Of course we cannot prepare for everything and expecting some unexpected changes in routine will happen. If you are able to give them some general idea of what is coming and they are able to visualize it themselves and prepare for it, the likelihood of their Anxiety decreasing is much higher. Help them get excited to be involved in the process, establish rewards if needed, and then finish the night with enough time to relax before bedtime.
Many children who experience feelings of Anxiety will often feel them at night. Nighttime is usually when it is quietest in your house (hopefully) and it is easy to be lying in bed thinking largely of your thoughts and what makes you most nervous-often the day the ahead. It would be helpful to engage in the routine of a variety of relaxation techniques. For example, deep breathing (i.e., breathing in through your nose for 4 seconds and out through your mouth for 5 seconds). Repeat that same process for 3-4 minutes. The more often your child engages in the process, the longer duration they could do it for. The simple act of meditative breathing slows the heart rate down, can settle nerves, and help your child feel a greater sense of perceived control over their mind and body. Secondly, visualization may also help as they prepare for the next day. Instead of thinking about their video games, or spending the last 30 minutes before bed staring at a screen, visualizing (i.e., imagining a setting in which they can feel themselves relax) can help them feel more in control of what it coming the following day. Set the stage with your children to imagine the setting that makes them most anxious at school (e.g., specific classes/ subjects, friends, tests etc.). The more often they imagine themselves completing or engaging in these tasks successfully, the more likely they are to experience them successfully as opposed to anxiously. Finally, have your children engage in progressive muscle relaxation. The simple process of tensing different muscle groups for 5-7 seconds and then releasing that tension for 20-30 seconds will further give them a greater sense of perceived control over their bodies and the affiliated tension. Our bodies tend to tense up very quickly without even realizing it. The more often we over think something, the more tension we experience in our bodies. Often the tension we feel at night emerges in the form of teeth grinding, neck spasms, headaches at night or in the morning, and overall fatigue of our muscles. It is not out of the question to set the daily goal of engaging in these relaxation exercises as a family and/or with friends.
Setting goals is one of the most important aspects of starting the school year, for both parents and children. Although the new school year can generate the idea of a new year leading to resolution type thinking. However, it is still 2017 and resolutions often fade within the first few weeks despite the glorification they may get in the media. Instead, sit down with your children and ask them what their goals would be for the opening week of school, the opening month, the opening term and then the year as a whole. Set goals with your children but be sure they are short, attainable, specific, and realistic and then WRITE THEM OUT. Too often parents and children may have the conversation about goals but because of the 200 things going on throughout the school year, the goals get lost. Write out the goals AND follow-up with your children so they are accountable and so they can see what they have accomplished as they progress. An easy way to do this is to categorize the goals that focus on different areas of their lives (e.g., academics, extra-curricular activities, sibling relationships, behaviour at home/ school, or friendships). Finally, set your own goals with them so they know you need to be as accountable as you are asking them to be. Again, never ask your children to do anything you yourself would not do. Most importantly, once the goals are set, remind your children - they are the ones in control of accomplishing their goals. Helping them embrace the perceived sense of control over their own goals, behaviours, and perceptions will aid in decreasing their Anxiety heading into opening week. There is going to be a lot going on in their lives as well as yours during the beginning of school, be prepared WITH your children and not just FOR them. As busy as the year gets, remind them to stay focused on the present to help decrease their Anxiety and reiterate this school year is not about last year, it is all about this week-Enjoy It!
Dr. Jay Greenfeld is a Clinical Pshychologist with an extensive background working with children, adolescents. college students and adults with a variety with presenting concerns. He is a lecturer on Stress Management and Well-Being. with research primarily focusing on integrating exercise and other health-related behaviours into everyday life.
He can be reached at Mind Matters Clinic at 204-477-8555.
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