This story was contributed by Harvey Karp, M.D.
For so many kids, back-to-school season is full of excitement! They get to pick out a new lunchbox or backpack, see old friends, play at recess, and return to a more predictable routine. The truth is: While children love the fun and spontaneity that summer often brings, most thrive when their trusty daily schedule returns. Despite all of that, even the most excited-for-school kids can get struck with a case of the end-of-summer blues. Here, everything you need to know about what you can expect when sending your tyke back to school—and how to smooth the transition.
No matter what grade your child is entering, they’ll likely be mourning the carefree spirit of summer and feeling a bit of fear of the unknown (Who will my teacher be? Will I have friends in my class?). This is especially so for children who are starting at a brand-new school, whether they’re going into kindergarten or their freshman year of high school. Also, some children are simply more prone to separation anxiety.
The problem is, kids aren’t always going to flat-out tell you, “Hey, Mom, I’m nervous about the start of the school year.” Instead they give off clues that you’ll need to tune into, like:
- Increased restlessness
- Slight changes in sleep, such as trouble nodding off or waking earlier than usual
- Mood takes a turn for the pensive and quiet
- Asking lots of questions about school, teachers, friends, the cafeteria, tests, bus rides, and everything in between
- Expressing concern about back-to-school activities, such as shopping for school supplies or school orientation
When their anxiety is turned up a notch, warning signs can intensify and may include:
- Insomnia and/or fatigue
- Stomach and/or headaches
- Severe irritability
- Drastic mood swings, including an uptick in aggression or anger
The good news? For most children, these back-to-school worries fade once the school year is in full swing. But instead of simply waiting it out, I suggest parents help their worried kids by following this advice…
Validate your child’s feelings.
Anytime your child expresses any sort of back-to-school worry, don’t dismiss it by offering a knee-jerk “There’s nothing to worry about! You’re going to do great!” Instead, if your bub says “I won’t know anyone in my class!” and proceeds to vent…hold your tongue until they wind down. Then, say something like, “I see how that can make you anxious!” and try to share with them why you’re confident that they can handle the situation. If your child wants, you can help them strategize how to handle situations they’re worried about…but only if they want help!
Adjust the whole family’s schedule.
Older kids often stay up later in the summer—and sleep later, too! So, a week or two before the school year starts, get the whole family on board to push your evening winddown time earlier by 20 minutes to an hour. At the same time, set your alarm to go off a little bit earlier in the morning, even if it’s just 10 or 15 minutes. This leisurely schedule change helps kids mentally and physically adjust to the back-to-school schedule shift that’s fast-approaching. (To help with wake-ups, try scheduling some fun end-of-summer activities to coincide with when the school day will start.)
Teach your child this child self-care trick
Before school starts, introduce your child—whether a preschooler or a teen—to what I call “magic breathing.” This powerful de-stressor is fantastic for settling back-to-school jitters and helping kids feel more in control of their feelings. Sit in a comfy chair and ask your child to do the same, telling them that you’re going to do some magic breathing, “This helps me feel better when I’m anxious.” Next, uncross your legs, put your hands in your lap, drop your shoulders, and relax the muscles around your mouth and eyes. Slowly inhale through your nose (silently count to five) while raising one hand, then exhale through your nose (for another five), letting your hand slowly drop. Have your child mimic you, then lead them through the motions. Do this several times leading up to the first day of school and encourage them to tap this new calming technique whenever back-to-school butterflies arise.
Share your own back-to-school stories.
Kids of all ages like to hear tales from their parents’ childhood. Think back to when you were your child’s age and share with them the worries—and excitement—you used to feel as the school year approached. Don’t forget to talk about how you handled each situation, too. (This is a nice backdoor way to impart some advice to your child!) At the same time, you can share how you—as an actual grownup—get a little blue at the start of the school year, too! (PS: For tweens and teens, having these types of chats in the car is often the most effective since they don’t have to make eye contact!)
Send little ones to school with a “friend.”
For younger kids, simply being away from their parents is enough to cause back-to-school worries! For those kids, consider sending them to class with a small comfort item that reminds them of you or home. That could be a lovey, like a small stuffed toy, a special photo, or a trinket like a “magic” rock. Let them know that they can touch or look at their item anytime that they feel homesick.
About Dr. Harvey Karp
Dr. Harvey Karp is one of America’s most-trusted pediatricians and child development experts. He is on the faculty of the USC School of Medicine and a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Karp practiced pediatrics in Los Angeles for over 25 years. His landmark discoveries and unique ability to translate complex science into effective techniques to empower parents have revolutionized our understanding of the needs of young children. He is the founder and CEO of Happiest Baby, a smart-tech and parenting solutions company that invented the SNOO Smart Sleeper, a responsive bassinet that mimics the sounds and motions of the womb to extend infant sleep by 1-3 hours.
Dr. Karp is also the best-selling author of The Happiest Baby on the Block and The Happiest Toddler on the Block. He is an advisor to Parents, Ser Padres and American Baby magazines and a pediatric expert on BabyCenter. He has appeared numerous times on Good Morning America, CNN, Today Show, The View, Dr. Oz, etc. His work has been featured in the New York Times, Time, Newsweek, LA Times, Parents, People Magazine, among others.