How to deal with back-to-school anxiety

My sixth grade son has anxiety. He gets it from me, I’m sure. But while my mostly long-dormant medicated problems manifest themselves through panic attacks and musings about slightly implausible scenarios (Am I dying? Is my breathing too shallow? Am I accidentally inserting profanity into this article? ?), theirs are much more rooted in reality. This makes them a bit more difficult to treat.

For example, I can tell myself that the chances of inadvertently adding profanity in this sentence are pretty slim. Andy, meanwhile, worries about things like schedules and routines: he doesn’t like being dropped off in new places, he gets nervous if we’re home five minutes late (and he texts multiple times to prove it), and he likes know how the day, week, month, year will unfold. Sleepover camp was a big step for him, and I’m really excited that he tried it, but now he’s worried about going back. (Yes, he is asking us to re-enroll for September!)

The school is bringing some of these concerns to light. You are going to take a new bus to a new part of town. You are starting in a new school with unknown teachers. She’s going to start changing classes, not to mention she’ll have a lot more homework.

During the day, it’s calm and cool, but at night, these latent fears bubble to the surface. He wants to know how he will get a bus pass. He wants to know what to do if he doesn’t take the bus home. He wonders who will pick him up on the days he doesn’t stay after school to go to a club. You want a plan, and life doesn’t always work that way.

As someone who suffers from anxiety, and writes about it and volunteers about it, I’ve come up with some efficient ways to help you. Sure, sometimes I complain: when he texts me 20 in a row asking me the same question or complains when I drop him off at a new ball field and have to go to my next port of call, I lose patience. But, in quieter moments, this is what I try:

Ask “and then what?” Let’s say you are afraid of missing the bus. I push him to dig deeper and identify the underlying fear that is triggering the worry. So you miss the bus. Then what? you stay alone Then what? “No one is coming to pick me up.” Then what? “I’ll have to sleep at school.” Gradually the scenarios become so absurd that he realizes that at some point they will be rectified before he is sleeping alone in a locker.

List supporting stockpiles. He hates being in unfamiliar places, so I remind him of his army of tools: he has a cell phone to call us if he gets lost, and map apps to show him where he is. It has phone numbers for my dad, my brother, and friends if we somehow don’t answer. She knows how to call the police and she knows where she lives. You know where to find help if you need it.

Tell a story. Andy loves to hear tasteless stories about my high school life, mostly about how mortifying situations turned out, like the time I got diarrhea on a ski lift (it ruined my neon purple snow pants) or the time a boy rolled down a hill stuffed into a garbage barrel while everyone watched (this is before social-emotional learning was at the forefront). The message, of course, is that I got through high school, and so will he.

Practice tough love. Fittingly, this is the most difficult to execute. When spiraling into health anxiety, my therapist has trained my husband to only answer a question once before refusing to participate. Can I ask you a question (“Is this a lump? Should I call the doctor?”), without repetition. I know firsthand how incredibly difficult it is; it’s like an itch that I need to scratch over and over again to calm down. But scratching keeps the wound open, and quiet is a bad Band-Aid. I realize this, so I inflict, or gift, Andy with the same deal. I don’t always reply when he texts me ten times in a row. Sometimes I reply “I’m not sure” if I can’t give him a concrete answer, even when he demands one. He occasionally deliberately leaves things open, so he is forced to sit a bit awkwardly. I can’t knock down all the obstacles for him to ease his anxiety; resilience is a muscle that must be worked. Otherwise, I’m not doing you a favor.

Next, I’ll have resources and outlets for support in more serious situations. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your techniques for dealing with a functional but anxious child, especially as the new school year unfolds…eeek!…

Find mental health resources in the Greater Boston Jewish community.

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