It's not uncommon for children to be nervous at the beginning of a new school year. Now that we're a few weeks into this year, it may be that your child is still struggling with being anxious.
How should you respond? Should you tell him to toughen up? Should you wait it out? Should you be taking some important action right now?
While every child is different, here are four steps to help your preschooler work through anxiety.
1. Talk with teachers
It's important for everyone caring for the child to be on the same page. Keep in mind that experienced teachers have literally helped dozens of parents and students through this same time of transition. They can often provide some insight based on that experience.
Furthermore, they can give you context. In other words, you may see your child's anxiety before and after school, but the teacher may find that the child very quickly forgets about his/her anxiety and jumps right into the activities. Of course, this can work in the reverse as well.
Remember, "the goal isn't to eliminate anxiety, but to help [your] child manage it."1 And your child's teacher is the perfect partner in this goal.
2. Ask good questions
When you know your child struggles with anxiety, it's easy to reinforce these struggles with leading questions. Asking, "Are you worried about school today?" may seem like an empathetic question, but it actually drives home an expectation. It teachers your child to anticipate scary school days as the norm.
Here are several principles to keep in mind when asking questions:
- Don't ask questions that can be answered with a "yes" or "no"
- Ask specific questions (e.g, not, "how was your day?")
- Ask varied questions (i.e., about relationships, activities, new experiences, etc.)
Asking good questions helps your child focus on the positive parts of his/her day.
3. Pray for and with your child
While it may seem small to you, anxiety about school or new experiences may very well be one of the biggest struggles your little one faces. It's crucial, then, to teach your child to take these problems to God.
One note about prayer: don't just focus on what you don't want. Prayers should be as much about who God is and thanking him for his gifts (e.g., "We know you love us because you sent Jesus to die for our sins" and "thank you for such wonderful teachers and friends," etc.) as they are about the actual problem.
In other words, praying "Please help Jonny to stop being scared" over and over again only focuses your child on his problem. So along with this direct request, you should also praise God, thank him, and rehearse truth together with your preschooler.
4. Don't avoid anxious activities
It's easy to want to remove all activities that make your child anxious. The problem is you can't. So by removing the activities you have control over, you miss opportunities to work through anxieties with your preschooler.
Helping children avoid the things they are afraid of will make them feel better in the short term, but it reinforces the anxiety over the long run. If a child in an uncomfortable situation gets upset, starts to cry—not to be manipulative, but just because that’s how she feels—and her parents whisk her out of there, or remove the thing she’s afraid of, she’s learned that coping mechanism, and that cycle has the potential to repeat itself.1
This doesn't mean we should intentionally pursue anxious activities either. The point, rather, is to see these activities as opportunities, not dangers. Lovingly helping your child face fears and obstacles will strengthen your child, not hurt her.