August 27, 2010
Dear Mayo Clinic:
My son, who will be in fourth grade, is really nervous about going back to school. He's had trouble with this in the past. Sometimes he gets so upset, he ends up with stomachaches. The problem usually fades as the school year goes on. But right now it's very hard on him, and it's stressful for the rest of the family, too. What can we do to help him make this transition easier?
Most people get nervous when they face change, and many kids feel anxious about going back to school. One of the most helpful things you can do is reassure your son that what he's feeling is normal. After that, find out specifics about what's bothering him. Then, as much as possible, help him gradually gain exposure to and get comfortable with the things that are causing his nervousness.
Anxiety about school isn't unusual for children this age. For some, like your son, the anxiety can cause physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomachaches. Other children may have trouble sleeping, cry easily, or become irritable or angry more quickly than usual. There are several concrete steps you can take to help your son cope with what he's feeling and increase his comfort level and confidence.
First, try to get a sense of what it is about school that makes your son nervous. Is he concerned about making new friends? About his teachers? Is he worried about the class work or about being overwhelmed by homework? Is there something new that may be causing anxiety, like dealing with a locker combination or managing a different schedule? Sometimes just being able to talk about those details and put the nervousness into words can be helpful for a child who's feeling anxious.
Second, showing love, support and warmth can go a long way. Share with your son an experience you had when you were anxious about facing something new. Talk to him about how you handled the situation. Doing this will let him know that he's not alone in the situation, that it's okay to be nervous, and there are ways to get through it. You can also encourage him to concentrate on breathing a little more slowly and deeply when he starts to get upset. This may help him calm himself and feel more in control of his stomachaches.
Third, help him gradually get back into his school routines. For example, make contact with his school friends and, if possible, arrange for him to spend time with some of them before school begins. Talk to his teacher and learn about what his classes will involve. Take him to the school building and look around his classroom. Give him time to practice his locker combination. Start getting him up a little earlier in the morning.
All these steps will help him know what to expect, prepare him gradually for what school will be like and ease the transition. This approach is based on one of the core principles of treating anxiety. That is, when you're frightened of something that isn't dangerous, you need to have practice dealing with the source of your fear until it becomes routine or boring. You can't be talked out of anxiety. You need exposure to and experience in dealing with the situation.
If your child is very resistant to the attempts you're making, or if his anxiety doesn't decrease even after you've taken these steps, consider talking with your pediatrician or family doctor about seeing a professional who can help your son cope. Because it's a normal part of life, anxiety can't be eliminated completely. But there are many successful strategies that can be very helpful in reducing anxiety and making it less disruptive and more manageable.
— Stephen Whiteside, Ph.D., Psychiatry and Psychology, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.