How to Handle Middle School Anxiety
Q: I have a daughter moving from fifth grade to middle school in August. She is already making herself sick worrying about it. How can I help her make this transition?
Understand that you are in good company. Many other parents are in the same position of helping their children deal with worry and fear. Anxiety is the number one mental health problem in America; 13 percent of children and adolescents struggle with it. Many of the school-aged children’s worries include transitions from one school to another. There are 68 million school-aged children who are specifically worried about school issues in general. This is an opportunity for both of you to come up with a plan that will help your daughter get through the summer and confidently feel she has the skills to deal with her worst fears.
Perhaps the first step is separating worry that is problematic from normal apprehension that occurs when dealing with something new. I am sure the two of you can generate a great list of new places, people, and skills she has handled well in the past. You will both want to talk about how she made those new situations and people work for her. Hopefully, she will see she has already had many successes in similar situations in the past.
As you listen to your daughter talk about starting school, listen for these common fears. Remember, she will be the best guide to help both of you define the skills she needs to be worry-wise instead of worry-full when school starts. Some of her fears will help her be better prepared for school, and some of her fears may be unfounded. Here are some common new school fears:
- Being in an unfamiliar place.
- Dealing with new teachers.
- Having more classes and books to keep track of.
- Feeling safe in a bigger school that may be farther from home;
- Riding a school bus.
- Dealing with a locker and combination lock.
- Not doing well in school work, athletics, etc.
- Not being liked, being ostracized or teased.
- Being judged.
- Having boy/girl relationship pressure.
Let her define her concerns. Avoid developing a list of possible problems for her. That could be overwhelming. As she shares some of her difficult fears about what could happen to her when she starts back to school, these issues might come up. It is critical to take her concerns seriously. Do not laugh or make light of her fears. Treating them with the weight she has given them lets her know you will be there to help her learn how to prepare herself for each one. You might remember dealing with some of those fears yourself long ago. She might be interested in knowing how you handled similar situations. If your daughter likes to research things on her own, the library might have some fiction and non-fiction books that would fit her needs.
Your daughter wants to be in charge of the things that trigger her fears. These are skills that she will be able to use throughout her life. Stress reduction techniques are one of the core programs taught in many businesses. You and your daughter can become a team in using some of the stress management techniques. These include:
- Using slow, deep breathing.
- Using progressive muscle relaxation.
- Learning time management skills.
- Using positive self-talk.
- Prioritizing and organizing.
- Challenging negative self-talk.
- Getting a good night’s sleep.
- Getting regular exercise.
- Practicing good nutrition and hydration.
- Developing a strong support system.
Both of you will want to attend the school orientation program usually held before school actually starts. Be sure to walk her schedule and track her path through the day so she will have already found all her classes, met her teachers, seen her locker, the lunch room, and restrooms along the way. If possible, you might want to follow the bus on the first day with your daughter so she can track the time, the stops, and see the other kids who will be riding with her. Planning an event with her friends before school starts will also make the first day of school easier. Allowing them to reconnect from their summer vacations and focus on the excitement of a new beginning might help ease your daughter’s worries and fears.
If your daughter has always struggled a bit with anxiety, you will want to listen for signs that might indicate it is time to talk to a professional. You might notice her:
- Refusing to leave the house or her room.
- Having headaches, stomachaches, vomiting, and repeated sleepless nights.
- Refusing to eat or drink.
- Cutting off her relationships with her friends.
- Becoming overly critical of herself and her friends and family.
- Having uncontrollable crying, clinging, or screaming.
A therapist can work with the fears by both teaching her coping skills and helping her rethink the way she approaches her situation. If this has been a long term issue for her, then you will understand she is learning skills to handle triggers that she may face all her life. Either way, she is fortunate to have you on her side.
Throughout this process, you will want to keep the attitude of knowing your daughter will do well, and that you trust her to use her skills and to manage her worries. She may be surprised to find herself excited about all the new possibilities the school will bring. Your ability to respect her worries and at the same time reinforce your own memories of the excitement that new experiences bring, even when they are initially awkward and unfamiliar, will indirectly help her know you have faith in her ability to cope. Good luck to you both!
What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety (What to Do Guides for Kids age 6 to 12) by Dawn Huebner (Author), and Bonnie Matthews (Illustrator)
My Anxious Mind: A Teen’s Guide to Managing Anxiety and Panic by Michael A. Tompkins and Katherine A. Martinez