Helping Kids Navigate Back-to-School Anxiety
Jennifer Cohen Harper is an author, mindfulness and yoga educator, and mother. She works to support children (and those who care for them) to build self-compassion and resilience while befriending their powerful emotions. Jenn is the founder of Little Flower Yoga, the author of Thank You Breath: Finding Peace and Power from the Inside Out, and the creator of the guided online workshop Navigating Anxiety in Children: Meeting Stress with Inner Strength.
It’s back-to-school season, and for many children, anxiety is rising. Our kids are adjusting to new people, new classroom cultures, new expectations. The rules change with each teacher, and the relationship dynamics change with each new class. Academic expectations keep increasing, and the days keep starting earlier as they move from pre-school to elementary school and beyond. It’s a lot.
We all want to do what we can to reduce anxiety and help our kids thrive, but sometimes our actions do the opposite, especially when overwhelmed and exhausted kids act in ways that push our own anxiety buttons.
Because we so badly want our kids to feel better, the message when children are anxious is often some version of “we need to get rid of this anxiety.” Then, the adult works to distract the child or convince them that there’s nothing to be anxious about.
But trying to get rid of a feeling never makes it go away! To help kids (and ourselves) feel more powerful and competent, we have to look directly at the anxiety and listen to what it’s trying to say.
Anxiety Has Something to Tell Us!
Everyone experiences anxiety, and just like other emotions, anxiety serves a purpose. It gives us information, and at times can even help our body prepare for what's coming.
Anxiety is one way our body tells us that something important to us is at stake. But we often interpret the experience of anxiety as “something is wrong and I can’t handle it,” or even “something is wrong with me, and I can’t do anything right.”
Those interpretations are just stories that our mind is making up! We don’t have to believe them—but they get stronger if we try to push them away. Instead, we need to actively tell ourselves, and our kids, another story.
If we can shift our mindset during anxiety to “something important to me is at stake…I'm nervous about my ability to handle it…time to get my A-game on,” we can manage (and even thrive) during challenges. And so can our kids.
One of the lies anxiety tells us is that we aren’t good enough. Not good enough for our family, friends, school, sports... in this context, mistakes are magnified, challenges feel like threats, and it’s easier to avoid new things than risk failing.
To counter this narrative, we need to build a relationship with our body and mind that’s rooted in what we can do, learn skills to settle our nervous system, and at the same time, be taught to soften towards ourselves through self-compassion.
Helping our kids find self-compassion starts with us being compassionate toward them and ourselves!
Disconnection and Overstimulation Increase Anxiety
While the specific causes of anxiety vary, two things that make worries worse are disconnection and overstimulation. They amplify fear and decrease resilience for everyone, especially kids.
Disconnection (feeling that we aren’t quite understood, that we’re in it alone) makes everything harder. It’s often driven by adult and peer technology use, caregiver stress and distraction, subtle cues for support being missed, and behaviors being misinterpreted.
During back-to-school season, disconnection is magnified. Children leave caregivers to go to a classroom where they usually don’t yet have any relationship with the adult in charge. Their new teachers don’t know their needs, their fears, their interests—and our kids don’t know how their teachers will react to them in various situations. They don’t actually know if they're emotionally and physically safe with this new adult.
Overstimulation is also increased during back-to-school time. We’ve all felt the impact of being overstimulated: having so much input that our minds and nervous systems can’t keep up. Academic pressure, over-scheduling, increased awareness of world events, and even everyday things like a noisy lunchroom or meeting a lot of new people can cause overstimulation, which often leads to shutdown and avoidance, tantrums and anger.
When anxiety is rising for our kids, we can help by increasing connection and decreasing stimulation. The more we slow down and create meaningful experiences of being seen and heard for our kids, the more we will see the roar of their anxiety start to quiet.
Using Mindfulness Practices to Support Ourselves and Our Children
Helping children navigate anxiety is tricky, because in order to help, we have to become regulated enough to create an environment of emotional safety. This is the most important part! We have to be a safe space for big emotions, and many adults can get overwhelmed by kids' big emotions. To support children with mindfulness practices, we have to practice them ourselves and be able to access our tools in difficult moments. Our kids can’t truly connect until we make ourselves safe to connect with.
Once we’ve supported our kids through connection, the next step is to help them get curious about what’s happening in their body and mind and what they can do to support themselves (especially if we’re not around).
With my own kids, it’s been helpful to have some simple options for them to rely on when challenges arise; reminders that move them in the direction of resilience and interrupt worry and self-doubt. What I’ve taught them is that when things are hard, they can take a break, ask for help, or power up and keep trying.
Paying attention to their bodies and minds can help them figure out which they need. For example, fast breathing may mean that they need to take a break and settle their nervous system with a practice like Child’s Pose or Back to Back Breathing.
If their mind is making up stories, it could be a good time to ask for help or gather more information.
And when kids are facing a challenge, reminding themselves how strong they are (with powerful movement, dancing to an inspiring song, remembering a past success) can help them harness the inner resources to rise to the occasion.
“Power up and keep trying” doesn’t mean everything will go the way we want it to. It means that we're using our strength, giving it our best shot, and managing our frustration along the way. And sometimes, in the process, we need to take a break or ask for help!
As we build these options into day-to-day life, they start to become part of our children’s inner voice. The goal is that when anxiety arises, kids ask themselves what they need. What information is this anxiety offering me? What can I do about it? Knowing they have options interrupts the feelings of helplessness and overwhelm, and moves kids toward accessing their power.
Personal Power Grows in the Context of Compassionate Relationship
When anxiety is rising, the message children need is not "let’s get rid of this anxiety." They need to feel and hear, "Your body is telling you something important, I understand how hard this is, you are strong enough to handle this, I’m here for you."
The I’m here for you part is important. Often, we want to teach children tools so they can manage anxiety on their own in the “real world”. But remember: anxiety is magnified by isolation and diminished by connection.
When children are overwhelmed, the presence of a calm, compassionate adult provides a beacon of stability, a source of strength, and a reminder of their resources. Kids who feel like someone has their back can walk more confidently into the world, even when that person is not literally at their side!
The healthy development of children’s resilience system depends on connection. Give them tools, teach them about their power, but remember that one of their greatest resources is YOU!