I know it doesn’t truly feel like springtime yet in our northern climes (I’m in New Hampshire), but I want to offer fair warning about something that happens as the flowers bloom. As a therapist that specializes in anxious children, I generally expect a busy August and an even busier September in my practice. The approach of a new school year brings all its adjustments and uncertainty. However, I’m beginning to believe that May is even busier if you’re in the worry business. “May?” you say. “Warm May? Sunshine and fun and field trips?” Yes, field trips. And endings. And visits up to the middle school or to next year’s classroom. Just as the worried child has settled into a routine and feels mastery in her environment – all that comfort and predictability – it’s time to start talking about… next year.
As soon as teachers start removing artwork and pulling down displays, my phone starts ringing. Worried kids don’t spend enough time basking in the success of a grade well done. They don’t roll around in the good memories of what they’ve learned and handled over the last nine months. Instead, they look ahead. And in front of them, once again, is the impending doom of another transition. This often takes parents, teachers, and even mental health professionals by surprise, so consider yourself warned. Anxious behavior that had gone into hiding for a several months might return. If it never went away, it might ramp up. The end of a school year feels different. The schedule is often disrupted with activities, assemblies and, to an anxious child, those dreaded field trips. Teachers and kids, sensing the homestretch, behave differently. It’s all just so, well, different. But as teachers of anxiety management and prevention, you’re going to have a very helpful perspective on this: this time of year is a great opportunity to teach children all we know about handling worry. Most importantly, children are going to be uncertain and uncomfortable, and they’re going to get through it.
In order to stay a step ahead of worry’s springtime tactics, try these strategies with children and their parents – strategies that embrace and normalize being uncertain and uncomfortable:
- Worry makes kids forget. They will reflexively look to the future through the worry lens, so they’ll need help accessing the skills they’ve developed all year. Make a list (a plaque, a certificate, a poster) of all the things a child learned to handle…things that were new and a bit scary, but now are givens. The theme you want to promote: “This felt new and awkward, but I figured it out with time and practice.” Don’t just focus on academic skills either; pay attention to things like “I learned to ask for help” or “I now wait at the bus stop without Mom.”
- Support the reality that saying goodbye to a favorite teacher or leaving a school is emotional. But feeling emotions, like sadness and worry, does not mean you can’t handle what’s to come. “I’m sad to be leaving this great classroom, and I don’t know exactly what next year will be like, but I can handle it and figure it out as I go, just like I did this year.”
- Help parents and kids accept not knowing. We can sometimes work very hard to answer every question and provide as much certainty and reassurance as we can about next year. Model being able to know some things, and not know others. If the worrier starts to ramp up (sleep issues, tummy aches, etc.) talk openly about the fact that the end of the school year is a time of uncertainty, and worry loves to the opportunity to move right in and take charge. Acknowledge that feeling nervous is normal; letting worry run the family, however, is not good for anybody.
On September 3rd, Reid Wilson, Ph.D. and I will be releasing our book for parents dealing with anxiety in their families entitled Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents: 7 Ways to Stop the Worry Cycle and Raise Courageous and Independent Children.
We we also be presenting our upcoming workshop together Anxious Kids, Anxious Families: Strategies that Work for School and Home in Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia this spring.
Lynn Lyons, M.S.W.