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Child Anxiety At New School Year

It's back-to-school time, and along with the excitement comes anxiety that can show up in unexpected ways in children, even before the school bell rings.

The Saturday Early Show's Family and Adolescence Counselor Mike Riera, Ph.D, gave us a crash course in easing the transition from summer to school.

Whether your children are starting kindergarten or beginning senior year in high school, there's a good chance that things are suddenly more rocky than usual at home. Maybe the kids are sniping at one another or snapping at you. Every little thing becomes a big issue.

Riera suggests ways that school-related anxiety might show up in children of various ages and ways for parents to manage the annual angst. "Parents should expect general excitement over shopping for school supplies and clothes, new teachers, maybe even a new school -- but also some anxiety," he says. "For an adult, it's what you might experience as you get ready to start a new job or return to an old job after a maternity leave or extended vacation."

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Children are mostly anxious about friends and, to a lesser extent, schoolwork. More than anything, they want a group of friends at school who accept them and want to be around them -- whether this is playing on the playground in kindergarten or walking off campus for coffee in 12th grade.

"This anxiety means that many parents will see some regression in their kids' behavior at home and with their family," says Riera.

Regression may show up in different ways, depending on the age of the child. Old behaviors that you thought the child had outgrown will reappear, including things that make them more dependent on you.

A 6-year-old may misplace her school supplies as you're getting ready to leave in the morning. An 11-year-old may forget to pack his lunch and call you from school to bring him a meal or lunch money. A 16-year-old may throw a tantrum because her little sister used her hair brush, even though the younger sister had been using that hair brush all summer long without a problem.

Essentially, what these youngsters are doing is acting out any anxiety they are experiencing over going back to school.

Acting Out: Plan For It
Parents can handle or even prevent the regression by expecting it to happen and having a plan ready. Riera says the family should allow more time for all the regular chores and rituals -- more time to get dressed and eat breakfast, more time to get settled after school, more time for the bedtime ritual, and so on.

Acting Out: Name It
Riera also recommends that you help your children to recognize their anxiety by pointing out and naming the behavior. He says, "Just after your son has thrown a fit at his younger sister you can say, 'Gotta be careful not to take your nerves out on someone you love. I know, I do the same thing when I'm anxious. So, are you nervous about anything related to going back to school?' He might not answer it then and there, but perhaps the next day he will," says Riera. "At the very least, you've connected the dots for him, which he'll put together on his own."

Acting Out: Write A Note
As school approaches, try writing your child a note voicing your own excitement and any anxieties about the child starting school. Mention things like finding good friends and learning to try one's best.

It is a lot of work; however, Riera says that children are more vulnerable than normal at this time of year and, if parents play their cards right, the children will let them in. This especially happens late at night when kids are climbing into bed and suddenly want to discuss what is worrying them about school. Or it might happen as you walk your child to the school bus stop or give him a ride to school.

Whenever it happens, all you have to do is listen and gently reassure the child that things will work out. That is, they need to voice their concerns more than they need to hear a parent's advice.

The effort put in early will lead to less effort down the road because the child will be settled into his or her routine at school, and life will be functioning smoothly again.

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