Back to school: Tips to overcome the 3 most common first-day jitters

We asked a psychologist about the most common anxiety-inducing back-to-school situations and how to deal with them.
We asked a psychologist about the most common anxiety-inducing back-to-school situations and how to deal with them. AP Photo/Mark Bugnaski, File

Back to school can be a stressful time for both parents and students.

The milestones which usually cause the most anxiety are: when kids start school for the first time, enter high school or change schools.

Luckily there are simple ways to diffuse the nervous tension that may arise around each of those scenarios.

Toronto-based registered psychologist Dr. Oren Amitay offered a few key pieces of advice for how parents can ease the transitions.

Stress #1: Sending youngsters to school

“That’s the hardest of all of them and probably the most common,” Amitay said of the emotionally-charged first-time send-off.

Whether it’s daycare, pre-school, kindergarten or even Grade 1 — it can be tough for parents to part ways with their “baby.”

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The most important thing they can do, according to Amitay, is not let that show.

“Parents have to check their own anxieties,” he stressed. “There’s an energy that people feel. Even babies can pick up on it. Children will feel that, absorb it and manifest it.”

READ MORE: Parents can help ease back-to-school anxiety

He advises parents to just treat the first day like any other day.

Some little ones may need a few extra minutes with their parents in the classroom, and that’s OK — as long as they slowly remove themselves.

Parents may be tempted to stick around and try to look through the window. Don’t do that, Amitay urged. It’s distracting. Be mindful of the other kids who also need to settle in.

“The parents have to be prepared to do the most difficult thing, which is to leave the child when your kid is freaking out and looking miserable.”

Trust that your child’s teacher or caregiver will be able to manage that.

WATCH: There are different techniques to dealing with the many signs of stress children may show

Another tip to help kids adjust to the hours away from home: give them something to look forward to when you pick them up. Four- and five-year-olds have the ability to anticipate, Amitay explained.

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READ MORE: Back-to-school tips for every age, stage and milestone

If something went wrong in their day, hear them out fully then switch to something positive.

If everything went well, Amitay said you could get your pre-schooler excited about the new routine by saying something like: “You had the greatest day in the world! And we’re going to do it again tomorrow.”

“It’s a harder sell when they get older because the kids get smarter.”

Stress #2: Starting high school

While the move from elementary to junior high can be a little tumultuous, Amitay believes the switch to high school “is the worst of them all.”

“It can be very intimidating,” he said. “It’s a whole new ballgame.”

Usually the school will have days for students to come and check out the school before classes start. If they missed that window, prod them to go with you or a friend to figure out the building’s layout.

“That’s one of the anxieties: rushing to class, not knowing where everything is — where’s the washroom, where’s the gym?

“We’re all designed to want to control and master our environment. In order to do that we need predictability,” Amitay said.

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“Kids don’t know what to predict in a new environment so it’s a total loss of control, which translates to anxiety.”

WATCH: Transitioning from elementary to middle school

Encourage your child to find out which old friends will be at the new school, and see if they can meet up beforehand the first morning or at least make plans to have lunch together. That will eliminate the daunting feeling of where to eat.

As much as you may be dying to know how it all went, be prepared to just hear “fine” when you ask.

Depending on their demeanor, you may be able to push them a bit.

Try to find the balance between giving your teen enough space but not seeming neglectful and dismissive. Don’t encroach on their space either.

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Remember that part of a teen’s job is to separate from the parents and find their own identity. So don’t take it too personally when they don’t want to tell you everything.

WATCH: A lot of parents struggle to let go

If you notice they’ve become withdrawn or sullen, ask them if there’s someone else they’d like to talk to — perhaps a trusted older cousin, a guidance counsellor or therapist.

The key is to include them in that conversation because they need to feel like they’re in contol, Amitay said.

Parents who have control issues are the biggest problem, in his experience.

“They want to micromanage and protect their child from everything.

“The parents who push to control the child the hardest usually have the kids who rebel the most.”

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Stress #3: Changing schools

Switching cities or school can make kids “feel like an outsider,” Amitay said.

“The worst thing is when a parent minimizes or dismisses the child’s concerns.”

“Give them the time they need. Let them talk about stuff. See if there’s anything you can do,” Amitay said.

Ask them if there are any clubs that interest them and refrain from pushing your own interests on them. Attune to their personality.

You could also suggest inviting any new friends over for lunch or after school. It may also help to acknowledge that it may seem tough to make new friends at first, but it’ll happen.

WATCH: Some schools are using a “buddy bench” to help kids make friends

That doesn’t necessarily mean you should say, “you’re going to be the most popular kid in no time.”

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“Even though the parent is trying to be positive,” Amitay said, “all the child is hearing is, ‘my parent doesn’t get me.'”

“And you really want the child to feel that you get them, and have their back.”

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