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Tips to avoid anxiety in kids: Start school season with fun traditions and avoid speaking catastrophically

  • Lynn Lyons Courtesy

Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 9/3/2020 4:25:12 PM

Families with children returning to the classroom this fall, either in-person or at home, should learn to embrace uncertainty, be flexible and create new back to school rituals. 

Lynn Lyons, a licensed clinical social worker, offered these strategies and more during Dartmouth-Hitchcock's “Understanding Anxiety in Children and Helping Them Cope Virtual Event” recently. 

Lyons is a Concord-based internationally recognized psychotherapist, speaker and author of several books, including Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents: 7 Ways to Stop the Worry Cycle and Raise Courageous & Independent Children. The in-depth conversation featured Lyons and Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock (CHaD) pediatrician Dr. Steven Chapman.

Deciding what to do about school this fall and how to prepare their children is currently perplexing parents and causing them anxiety, Lyons added. Kids are worried about what their classrooms will be like. Although anxiety likes to have clear answers, that’s just not possible this year.

“We feel like we have to know exactly what we’re doing, which is why this is so difficult,” Lyons said. 

Lyons is accustomed to helping families navigate anxiety, but the clients that she’s seeing right now are “worry rookies,” she said – “people who said, ‘I’ve never felt this way before’ or people who see anxiety in their kids and say, ‘I’ve never seen this before.’ But we are living in a time of uncertainty.”

Helping your family cope with uncertainty

Lyons said parents who are worried and expressing anxiety about the coming school year and beyond may not realize they are passing that thought pattern down to their children.

“One of the things we know from the research is that anxiety sort of hangs out in families,” Lyons said.

Children raised in “worried environments” are not good at handling uncertainty or being independent problem solvers; their sense of mastery and independence in the world is lacking; and they perceive the world as a more dangerous place, Lyons said. 

“Anxiety is all about rigidity,” she said. “I like to imagine anxiety as a cult leader.  … They like it when you obey their commands.  … When you disobey the cult leader that’s when you have a problem.”

Parents commonly make the mistake of giving a child with anxiety more information, so “that everybody knows the plans.”

“That’s not what I recommend in normal times, cause it’s hard to pull off, and it’s certainly hard to pull off right now,” Lyons said. 

Instead, parents should help their kids become comfortable with uncertainty.

“Flexibility and adaptability happen when we give permission to not know what’s coming next. Get used to talking to your kids about the ‘mights and maybes’ of the world,” Lyons said. 

You don’t need an all-or-nothing approach. Making plans is good, but emphasize that they may change, she said. 

Changing the language around worry

One mother recently said to Lyons “I know this is going to be terrifying when we have to go back to school.” Unbeknownst to the mother, her young child was listening. Parents should avoid that type of catastrophic language. 

“That kind of language is not going to help anybody step in and manage what we have to manage,” Lyons said. “So pay attention to your catastrophic language. It may be a habit you are not even aware of.”

On the other side, a little humor and imagination can go a long way in handling anxiety. Separate yourself or your child from their anxiety by naming it, such as Pete or Edith, and then speak about it and to it, Lyons suggested. You can even tell your children when your anxiety shows up. 

“You can say, ‘Pete knock it off. You know what, Andrew’s trying to get ready for the first grade and you show up and are being all catastrophic!’ ” 

Continue back to school rituals

Despite the unusual circumstances, parents should make the beginning of the school year a time of connection, warmth and ritual. Lyons knows a family that is going to bake cookies in the shape of one and two, to help their first grader transition from the first grade to the second grade by eating the number one cookies the day before the first day of school, and the number two cookies on the first day of school.

Chapman encourages families to focus on what has not changed. You can talk to your children about the new school year without letting anxiety take hold by asking them what they’re looking forward to, for example. Celebrate the benefits of school starting: building connection, collaboration and facing challenges together.

“Kids miss each other,” he said. 

To build connections, Chapman suggests parents also help their child make a kindness kit to bring to school on the first day – one piece of kindness for a student and one for a teacher. This can be very simple. 

“It can be something that you said or drew or wrote,” Chapman said. “The best connections start with kindness.”

For the first few days of school make time for your children to talk about their school day, about the worries, challenges and kindnesses.

Lyons cautioned parents against focusing too much on academics this fall – instead, focus on the joy of being back in school, whatever it looks like. 

“Being able to have a parade, being able to have some silliness, being able to have some joy in your household is going to be much more important than whether or not your children retained their times tables. Joy and your ability to convey joy to your children right now is essential,” she said. “What can you do with these kids that can feel joyful? They are looking at you to set the tone.”

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.

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