5 Steps to Handling “First Day” Jitters

I get lots of urgent calls from parents right at the beginning of the school year, after long holidays, and even at the start of new sports seasons. They are asking for help because their child is having a “really hard time” going back to school or going to the first practice of the season. Starting something new is filled with uncertainty and this can bring on a lot of anxiety – which then can lead to a lot of avoidance.

1. Remind him/her that it’s uncomfortable, not dangerous:“It’s understandable you’re feeling this way at the start of something new. Your body thinks you’re in danger, and it’s important for you to remind it that a new year (or new team etc.) is uncomfortable, not dangerous.”If your child is stating a specific worry, say - OK what is one helpful or useful thought that you could think to challenge the worry? (you can add –“You’ve been to many first days and it always gets easier by the end - it's uncomfortable, but not something you can’t handle). Thenask "what is one action that can help get you to your goal" (you can add for example, that the goal is to learn something today - plan to focus on one skill to work on that you want to get better in).

2. Don't engage in a “debate” – keep your message short and simple: when you see an escalation or tears or upset, it’s easy to get sucked into a conversation to try to help them feel better. Instead of engaging in a debate about whether they should/should not go, or trying to convince them that it will be OK, just sit quietly and state calmly that it's important for you to go, so I’ll wait here until you’re ready to go. We willbegoing each day regardless, because it's important, it’s your responsibility, and I know you can do it. Don't say too much else – “being a broken record” saying this once every 10 minutes is better – debate/convincing always keeps the escalation going. Nothing else should happen until you “go” either – so no TV/read/play while you are waiting.

3. Try not to over-empathize with his/her discomfort: It is hard to see your child feel terrible. Be careful not to over-empathize – or feel what they are feeling too much - it will suck you into trying to make him more comfortable which will lead to the discussion of not going at all. The goal is to know they can tolerate being uncomfortable for a couple of hours.

4. Keep home time not so comfortable: Give structure/tasks/chores so there isn’t a stark contrast between demand/no demand when they have to leave home for things. That’s one of the problems with holidays – they are unstructured, lots of warm comfortable feelings, and it’s really hard to want to go back to a not warm and relaxing place like school. So I encourage you to keep the days at home a bit structured – waking up and going to sleep around the same time, keeping some school type of work (reading, math worksheets) as a responsibility most days, being expected to finish chores like cleaning room/making their bed/taking dog for walk, before other “fun” things can happen. Planning to meet up with school friends or playing in the school field also help, I always say to try to “blur the line” between home and school (or any other place they need to go) – this helps them to not feel uncomfortable at the thought of doing school type things when the time comes to go to school. In the summer holidays it’s good to start this plan at least 1-2 weeks before school starts.

5. Be confident that they will get there. Your belief about whether your child can/can not handle a difficult situation absolutely gets communicated in your interactions with them. When your child “reads” your belief, they will act from it (like when a child looks at your reaction and then starts crying when they see that you’re worried after a fall). Which is why it is so important for you to know and truly believe that the situation is something your child can handle. Knowing that itcan be hard at first, but if you are consistent with your message and actions each day, they will get there. They will see that you believe that it’s important, and that they can do it. Then stay calm and steady in your plan to leave the house when it’s time, every time. Careful not to ask “do you think you’ll be able to go?” this communicates that you’re not sure they can handle it.

Just like if your child said he/she wasn’t sure they would ever be able to do multiplication. You wouldn't be worried inside or communicate that you were worried that maybe they wouldn't. You’d want to communicate your strong belief that it can be hard at first but that he/she’ll practice a little every day and eventually will get it. Similarly, you wouldn't give up and say OK you don't ever have to learn multiplication – you’d just find smaller steps, different ways to teach, and keep practicing. That’s the same with anxiety – you can find smaller steps (see our Child Anxiety Tales program for more about how you can do this), different ways to practice, but you must keep practicing – no such thing as “can’t,” just, “haven’t yet.” Know for sure they will get there.

Note: We understand that all children are different and use examples that are general and may not fit your child. We do not mean to minimize the struggle in learning math/multiplication for those kids who may have learning differences or learning disabilities. Please excuse the general nature of our examples.


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