Ask the Expert: Tips on dealing with anxiety and preparing for back to school with positivity

Kate Mendonca
Shopping Editor
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We’re nearing the end of the summer, which means that parents and kids alike are getting ready to make the switch from lazy days to early mornings and stricter schedules. With the impending changes, many kids may be nervous about heading back to school, which can create stress for everyone at home.

To help deal with new beginnings and potential anxiety surrounding the back to school season, I chatted with Tahmo Gharabaghi, Director of Residential and Day Treatment Services at The George Hull Centre, a Toronto children’s mental health centre that provides treatment and counselling for kids from birth to age eighteen as well as their families.

Ahead, Gharabaghi shares some of his top tips for making the transition from summer to back to school as smooth as possible.

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When it comes to back to school, what are some of the major forces causing kids to feel nervous?

“What a lot of kids, and what a lot of parents experience towards the end of the summer, is anxiety. It’s a fear of the unknown. For kids who’ve already been in school - elementary school or even high school - there’s always the performance anxiety,” says Gharabaghi.

“Things like, ‘How will I do? Am I ready to do this? Am I academically strong enough? Am I going to look stupid?’ All of these things - that’s the academic anxiety and performance anxiety.”

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What are some of the best ways to start preparing in the days leading up to a new school year?

“Don’t just wait for the first day of school and hope for the best, start preparing now,” says Gharabaghi. To help calm any back to school jitters, he recommends talking about heading back and performing the daily routine like walking the route to school, visiting the building, and checking out what courses kids might be taking in advance.

If possible, Gharabaghi also suggests finding out which teachers your child may have, as well as any friends that may be in the same classroom to point out some of the positive aspects that they can look forward to. These suggestions are especially important if your child is heading to school for the first time, or making a major transition, such as from grade school to middle school.

“For sure participate in anything you can to make it less jarring on that first day and the first week,” he shared. If your child is anxious at home, he also recommends talking to teachers to make sure that they’re aware of the situation ahead of time.

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How can parents ease any fears about heading back to school?

“Especially with younger kids when they just start going to school, little notes tucked into their lunch box or little treats that you know they love can make a big difference,” Gharabaghi suggests. More important though is the parents’ attitude towards heading back to school.

“It’s really important that parents keep it together and make sure that they seem calm and optimistic about the new beginning, because the kids will definitely catch on,” he says. “Even if you don’t really feel that way, you don’t want to show it to the kids because they’re going to pick up on it and the battle is lost.”

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What signs should parents look out for if they suspect their child may be clinically anxious rather than just nervous?

“If your son or daughter really becomes determined that they don’t want to go to school, even just at the beginning stages when occasionally they start refusing to go to school you know you’ve got a problem,” Gharabaghi says. “Kids should never really not want to go to school.”

If your child complains about stomach issues or headaches that prevent them from going to school, or often calls home during the day because they feel unwell, parents should look into any potential medical concerns, but these kinds of symptoms often indicate that the child may be struggling with their mental health.

“Often it’s really psychosomatic,” he admitted. “[Kids] come up with reasons to not have to go to school, and oftentimes it’s because of bullying or feelings of inadequacy.”

If this is the case, you’ll want to turn to professional help in order to explore what’s really going on and why your child is unwilling to go to school. Talking to teachers and school psychologists can give you a better picture of what’s causing their stress, and they can also recommend testing to determine whether your child is dealing with developmental or learning disabilities.

“If you have any doubt at all, [I suggest] doing some psychoeducational testing for your child to find out their exact learning style, and their learning disabilities if they exist,” recommends Gharabaghi. “That way they can be addressed and accommodated, and that can make a huge difference.”

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