More and more girls come into our counseling offices worried about the start of school. As the summer winds down and conversations come up about lunchboxes and lockers, they get a little teary. They have more frequent stomach aches or headaches. Each August, we see an onslaught of elementary aged children who have anxiety around school starting back. Sometimes, it’s that they’re afraid of throwing up. Sometimes, it’s performing poorly on tests. Sometimes, it’s making friends or having a strict teacher. Regardless of what they attach their fears to, they’re often looming large this time of year. And honestly, by the start of October, they’re much better. I’m always amazed by what a fantastic counselor I’ve been in October by how much I’ve helped kids work through their anxiety in such a short time, when it’s really just that they’ve gotten used to school.
So, what can you do in the meantime? Especially for girls?
1. Rehearse the day. Talk before hand about what she’s afraid of and take her through it step by step. Have her talk about what she can do to feel braver and stronger. And help her see that what she’s afraid of really might not be as bad as she imagines.
2. Give her something to hold on to. Stress balls they can have in their desk at school can be a huge help. Just something to squeeze when they get nervous.
3. Give her something to focus on. Memorizing Scripture is a great way to help kids have something to switch their anxious thinking and focus on truth that can anchor them.
4. Practice deep breathing. It really does make a difference.
5. Celebrate the victories. Make after school a time to talk over and rejoice with her the times she was brave!
Boys can struggle in some identical ways. He may also have fear around competence in the classroom. Unfortunately, the compulsory model of schooling we use in the United States bends more toward how a girl learns. It’s heavy on verbal and written expression, and requires a lot of sitting still and maintaining focus.
I coach boys on a strategy I call “Train the Brain.” I talk with them about some cool new research explaining ideas to trigger different chemicals and responses in the brain. We just have to practice or “train.” We discuss how training always takes work, how muscles get tired, and how easy it is to give up without immediate gratification.
1. Mindful Minute. Schools across the country have experimented with this practice with shocking results. It’s nothing more than 60 minutes of silence. You focus on breathing and gratitude. We have countless studies revealing how being thankful affects the brain.
2. Mantra. It’s helpful if boys adopt a phrase, quote or scripture they use to combat the distortions they buy into when anxiety hijacks the brain. If you hear yourself saying things like “you’re an idiot,” or “you are going to make an F on this test,” you are armed with something you speak back to yourself.
3. Movement. Movement can flush out the brain when it gets stuck or stopped up. It can be as simple as asking a teacher permission to walk to get a drink of water, or easy, subtle stretches a boy can do while seated in his desk that allow some “feel good” chemicals to travel to the brain.