Please Log In
Charlene Underhill Miller, PhD
Dr. Charlene Underhill Miller, a psychotherapist in Southern California, working with parents, couples, and families. She is a frequent and popular speaker to community groups, a professor, a wife, and mother
Aug 27, 2018
With a pit in my stomach, I sat quietly in the back seat of my parents’ car as they drove me to school. Anxious, a bit afraid, and excited too, I imagined in my head just what it would be like. Would I make friends? Whom would I have lunch with? Would I feel stupid or smart? Would I fit in? And were my clothes up to my classmates “standards?” I was on my way to UCLA, a freshman moving into the dorms. We often think of those “first day of school jitters” as something our preschooler, kindergartener, or middle schooler feels; however, the unknown produces anxiety for all of us. Whether you have young ones beginning their school journey or a seasoned “first day of schooler,” it is important to understand that much of this anxiety is deeply rooted in the same place — “will I be OK?”
With this understanding, we can help kids of all ages and stages with much of those first day of school nerves. Here are seven ways how to help them deal with first day of school anxiety:
This is advice best heeded by all parents of kids of all ages! Begin managing your own anxieties of sending your child off to school. Ask yourself, “What am I afraid of?” Perhaps you are afraid that your child will not belong, will not measure up, will not behave or will not be safe. Some of our own adult anxieties are rooted in our own school experiences or back to school anxiety. Examine what might be going on for you.
Many anxieties are exacerbated by last minute rushing. Talk through your child’s needs for school in an organized and calm fashion. Work through the lists and the lists of requests sent home by school teachers and administrators. Spend some time thinking through the school logistics with your child that might involve things like transportation, lunch, clothing, school supplies and schedules. Planning ahead, and preparing them for school in small degrees, means being planned before the very last minute.
With map and schedule in hand, visit the school with your child and school friends in tow. Whether it is casing out the playground, the lunch room, the front door of each classroom, or it’s a well-planned visit with school counselors and tour guides, preliminary preparation can be helpful to you both.
Most therapists understand that when someone is engaged in the process, they are less likely to be afraid of the unknown. Ask children what they might need from you in emotional support or in practical planning. They may come up with some wonderful ideas and their ideas will come back to them during the day when they are most anxious.
Open-ended questions are most helpful in exploring what might be underneath their jitters. Sometimes kids worry about the classroom bully, the advanced level of work, or of being away from you. Talk about their worries and help brainstorm what kind of practical or emotional aid would be helpful. Parental control software can give parents and kids peace of mind – especially at the start of the school year with lots of new faces and online school activities.
Linus, from the famous Peanuts cartoon, helped parents everywhere appreciate the magic of a security blanket. Sending something special with your child to school can help connect him or her to home. A stuffed animal or blanket for the preschool nap; a favorite trinket for the school cubby; a note in a lunchbox in elementary school; a carefully chosen backpack for middle or high school; family pictures for the dorm room – mementos such as these can help ease jitters during the day.
I arrived home to the smell of warm chocolate chip cookies at the end of every first day of school for as long as I can remember. It is a tradition that I have carried on with my own family. My mother knew that I would be more willing and eager to get home and share about my day, my concerns, and who was in my class over a plate of cookies, which beats the hounding of an anxious parent every time. Create a simple celebration ritual for your child that helps create security.
Your empathic gestures and loving words will connect to your child’s fears and experiences. Don’t diminish those feelings or tell them not to worry. Don’t punish them or threaten them for feeling the way that they do. Rather, engage in open, understanding conversations about what might feel helpful to them. And if either one of you continues to feel unhappy or overwhelmed, be open to exploring outside resources with your doctor, therapist, or school administrators. Remember, if you are positive and at peace, those feelings are more likely to transfer to your child.