First Day of School Joy or Anxiety?

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children on playgroun excited for first day of schoolFor some, the first day of school is met with fear, dread, and anxiety. For others, it is met with excitement and joy.

Both can lead to a sleepless night in anticipation of the first day of school.

As a child I was so excited to return to school every fall. I loved school, I loved school supplies shopping, and I loved homework. Brian was similar to me. In fact, at times throughout our marriage, we have said we could be students forever if somehow we could get paid to do so. I imagine once we retire, you will see us both in a classroom again taking classes for fun just to learn something new.

I guess Cassidy came by her love of everything school related naturally. She too loves school supplies, she usually likes homework, and she loves playing school at home. In fact, she was insistent, we home school over spring break and summer.

I recognize how this love of school eliminates a parenting challenge that many of you might still face.  We don’t have a nightly fight over getting homework done, mostly because she’s a strong student and it doesn’t take her too long to complete it. I respect the challenges that other parents face and appreciate the parenting pass we got in this area – for now.

Our school-loving child’s attitude changed drastically last year.

In retrospect, perhaps I should have seen it coming.

Her final two weeks in summer day care were horrible. There were tears; she begged us not to make her go- it was every working mom’s worst nightmare. Queue the extreme mom guilt.

She started having a hard time falling asleep at night, she would complain about stomach aches every day, and she started sleeping on her floor because her lofted bed made her dizzy.

On the first day of school, there was a torrential downpour. It let up just enough for us to walk her to school.

In previous years, we would walk her to school, hang out on the blacktop chatting with other parents until the first bell rang and watched our kids walk into school before returning home. Since it was raining last year, it was a quick goodbye as we sent them inside to their classrooms before the bell.

a rainy first day of school

It was NOT a picturesque first day.

Perhaps that should have been another sign of things to come.

Within days the independent first grader who insisted on walking to and from school at the end of the school year was an anxious second grader who sobbed if we didn’t walk her to school, wait with her and stay on the playground until she couldn’t see us anymore.

As a parent, it was heartbreaking and confusing.

We were sure it was just a short phase, and that she would feel comfortable walking to school again soon.

She didn’t.

Brian and I spent countless hours debating what to do.

Was tough love the right thing?

Or should we show endless support and stay on the playground as she wanted.

She was crying every night about having to go back to school. She would hold our hands in a death grip and cry almost every morning on the walk to school.

We would slow down as we got closer to school so she could compose herself before seeing her friends. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.

My school-loving child was gone.

I had no idea what happened, and my brain went to some very dark places of possibilities.

After a visit to her pediatrician to ensure there was not something physically wrong with her stomach we were referred to a counselor.

It wasn’t a quick fix, there isn’t a cure, but there was something we could do.

Cassidy did find joy in school again, but the entire year had its ups and downs.

a happy Cassidy

Between the school social worker, her supportive teacher and a counselor she has made great progress in managing her anxiety- another thing she comes by naturally from her parents.

Why did anxiety decide to show up in such force at this moment? We will never know, but I’m glad we sought out the help of professionals.

The first day of the new school year is right around the corner, and we are preparing more than ever before in our house.

Now we recognize the anxiety that starting a new school year means for our daughter.

She’s already having a hard time falling asleep at night. Instead of thinking of the best parts of school she’s worrying about the worst.

Her biggest fear is that the other students in her class won’t be good, so the teacher will have to yell at them – that’s a highly sensitive person for you.

I’m optimistic that we will be more prepared this year to handle the anxiety that a new school year brings. I am hopeful that we can avoid the tears, death grips and panic from last year.

In addition to the normal preparations that most families go through for the new school year: going to bed earlier, buying school supplies, buying school snacks, setting up morning routines, etc. we are also talking about our feelings more.

We practice deep breathing, we talk about what could go wrong, we strategize situations that may cause anxiety, and we don’t act too excited for the first day. It’s better if it doesn’t have too much build up.

I hope that you and your children have a magical first day of school, but know that you are not alone if it’s not so magical.

Regardless of whether your child has anxiety or not the transition from summer (even if they were in summer camp or day care) to school is still difficult for most children and parents. If it doesn’t seem to be getting better in a couple of weeks, you may want to investigate further. A great place to start is with your child’s school social worker or counselor.

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