Whether it's the first day at kindergarten, junior high, or high school -- or if it's a new school -- children get excited but they also get nervous. These are milestones in your child's life, and how your child adapts may determine how he or she adjusts to other "firsts" later in life.
"Kids who are fearful early on may be the ones who have a harder transition in other aspects of life," says Nadine Kaslow, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University and chief psychologist at Grady Health System, both in Atlanta. Inherently, "some children are just more flexible, more adaptable and these firsts don't seem to be that big a deal for them. For other kids, any transition is very disruptive. It takes them longer to make the transition."
Every little positive experience helps children adapt to all the "firsts" of their lives, Kaslow tells WebMD. "The more you prepare a kid the better, especially if your child is sensitive."
Her suggestions to parents:
- Prepare your child for the new routine;
- Meet the teacher;
- Talk to your child about what school will be like;
- Take a trial run dropping them off, then picking them up;
- Allow your child to be needy the first few days.
"Those first few days of school, your child might say 'come in with me,'" she tells WebMD. "Then you need to go in. Your child needs you to facilitate that transition. Such transitions can be emotionally challenging, and parents must be sensitive to that fact. Kids need extra support during that time -- even kids in middle school, high school. That's OK, that's normal."
If your child is an adolescent, peer group issues dominate their fears, says Kaslow. "There's the whole issue of cliques, of feeling left out. Belonging is so important during those ages." During summer months, it may be helpful to invite some kids for a small party, she advises. "Especially if your kid is shy, that can help them connect."
Once school starts, wait for reality to sink in -- and be ready to share it. "Kids may find [school] tougher than they thought," Kaslow tells WebMD. "Being extra available at home -- at night and in the morning -- is good. You want to be fixing kids' breakfasts, not making them fend so much for themselves at the beginning. You have to look for those windows of opportunity to connect, especially with adolescents."
Helping kids deal with their anxieties very often involves helping them challenge negative thinking, says Jerilynn Ross, MA, LCSW, president and CEO of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, and director of the Ross Center for Anxiety Disorders in Washington. She is also the author of the book, Triumph Over Fear.
Find out why your child is fearful, then work at reassurance, she tells WebMD. "A lot of times, children don't really know what the problem is -- until you ask enough questions. Then they'll tell you something -- they're scared mom won't be there when they get out of school, scared to walk home, afraid kids will make fun of them.
"For most kids, the first day is anxiety provoking," Ross says. "They will act out, will cry. Most kids by the second day are OK."
However, "if a couple of weeks pass, and the kid is refusing to go at all -- or coming home every day with stomachaches, headaches -- or is at the school nurse's office wanting to go home -- then you need to do something," she says. It could be signs of an emotional problem.
She recommends talking to a pediatrician or to a mental health professional. "Sometimes we find out that there's a bully in class or that the teacher yelled at him and no one else," says Ross. "If there seems to be no known cause -- but the child is having nightmares and not sleeping -- that could be sign of anxiety disorder, if it's really interfering with normal functioning."
And what if there is a bully in class? What should you and your child do?
"Most kids aren't going to tell their parents they're being bullied -- not unless a good line of communication has been set up at an early age," says Elizabeth Carll, PhD, a family psychologist in Long Island, N.Y. She is the author of the book, Violence in Our Lives.
"Let kids know that if something is happening at school, something they're uncomfortable with, that they can tell you," Carll says. If there is a bully, try not to get upset. "At that point, your child sees himself as weak and victimized. He's afraid you wonder how he let it happen."
Then, take action and report the bullying to the school. "It's important to go to the school and tell them that kind of behavior won't be tolerated," she says. "A school needs to have a policy in place and will only do it when people come forward. That's the only way bullying will stop."