When to Talk About Starting School: Don’t Create Anticipatory Anxiety

If I were to write an FAQ list for parents of young children, the first question would be “When should you talk about school starting with your young child?”  When I was a teacher and then was an early childhood center director, it was the most important and least asked question.  I learned from years of experience that I should simply advise parents and not wait for them to ask.  With all of the best intentions, parents tended to talk about school too soon which would escalate their children’s natural anxiety about that looming first day.

Change is scary.  Whether your very young child is just starting preschool or is moving from one class to another, it should be expected that there could be hesitation and anxiety.  Your child is facing the unknown and none of us like that.  Adults tend to think that talking about the upcoming school year sooner and more often will help children to feel comfortable.  We are more likely creating anticipatory anxiety.

As much as I travel for both pleasure and speaking engagements, I don’t enjoy the actual planes, trains and automobiles. I find the hustle and bustle of getting places stressful. For weeks ahead of the trip, when I think about the timing of getting to the airport or the train station, I get tense but once I arrive, I am okay.  I find that to be true of many situations in my grown-up world.  I may have been invited to an event that makes me nervous and whenever it is mentioned or enters my thoughts, I feel the tension.  Once I arrive at the event and it is in progress, I am fine.

I think that sort of “this is new” or “this is stressful” anticipatory anxiety is normal, is common and is not restricted to adults. For some children, thinking about the unknown or something about to change is frightening.  How can you do your best to prepare your children without causing a lot of added fear?  Here’s some of the advice that I would give in that FAQ for parents that I might write someday:
  • Sooner isn’t always better – You aren’t’ a retail store.  Just because stores have decided that Back-To-School starts in July, doesn’t mean that you should do the same.  Discussions about school starting should take place when school is about to start.  There is no reason to talk about it for weeks and months. Why have worried children imagining scary things for so long?  I often advise parents to mention it the weekend before the first day. 
  • Aim for the weekend before school starts for purchases.  Just like there is no point in talking for weeks, there is no point in staring at the supplies for weeks.  I know – the best clothing sales are earlier now.  Go “Fall Clothes Shopping” instead of calling it “School Shopping.”  If you are stressed about the perfect backpack being sold out, buy it and put it away.  It can be a terrific gift from you the day before classes start. 
  • Take your cues from your child.  Watch and listen when you say to your child, “You will be going to school soon.”  If your child looks scared, ignores you, walks away or says, “I don’t want to talk about it,” drop the subject.  However, if your child talks about school, smile and encourage a positive conversation about what is ahead.  That conversation should be led by your child.  If your child mentions the upcoming year, ask questions such as “What do you think you will do at school?”  “What do you think you will learn this year?” and other questions that help your child to provide his vision of the year rather than yours. 
  • Avoid talking too much no matter who brings it up.  As a general rule, we all talk too much.  When you do talk about school with your children (no matter who says it first), don’t over-talk it.  Ask a question or two.  Answer your child’s question.  Talk about an exciting shopping trip for a new backpack or lunch box.  Then, move on to another topic. 
  • If you are nervous, it will show.  Being a parent is hard because, in addition to the responsibility, we worry.  We worry about our children’s interactions with others, the success or challenges of their learning experiences and their health & safety.  You have lived a while and you know what could happen but your child does not.  They need to enter the new experience positively and without dragging our baggage with them.  Do everything possible to look and sound like someone who has confidence in your child’s ability to navigate the world.  You survived childhood.   You had good times and tough times.  There were lessons in both.  Your children will also have good and bad experiences that will prepare them for adulthood but you are going to be there to catch them when they fall.   That’s really all they will need – a safe place called home and safe people who love them.  So… smile and know that your children becoming independent is the goal and it is dependent on you sending them a message through your actions that you believe in them.

Know that no matter your approach, your child may be scared, sad, crying and clingy.  Some children run right into the room filled with the unknown while others are more emotional.  There is no correct way to behave.  There is no wrong way either.  Your child was born with a certain temperament and, even at young ages, they have learned a little about what it is like to do something new.  Whatever your child’s temperament – slow & cautious, active & feisty, introvert or extrovert – make the emotions and reactions to the newness acceptable.  When we demonstrate that we accept their nature, they gain confidence in their ability to be apart from you.

Read about Separation Anxiety:


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