How to help your child deal with Fear and Anxiety

“We just transferred to a new school district and now my son is having anxiety about going to school.  How can we help him integrate into his new school?”

Everyone suffers from Fear and Anxiety at one time or another.  No human will ever be totally exempt from anxiety.  Fear and anxiety happen to adults on a weekly basis.  Several of my clients have fussed that their child was too timid and they wanted to toughen them up a bit.  I have a lot of fun putting those parents to the test.  Even Mr. Macho (if he allows me to ask enough questions) will soon be in the hot seat when we uncover his adult fears.

Adults prefer to think they are strong enough to handle fear and anxiety.  We don’t worry about little things like moving or walking into a new job.  Yet, if we ask ourselves the right questions, it doesn’t take long to admit that we have the same worry and anxiety our children have, we’ve just learned how to deal with low-level stress.

What’s the difference between a parent that can handle stress and a child that can’t?  Just a little practice.  As a child, how did you learn all the things you now do on a daily basis – sometimes without thinking?  You learned to walk, talk, feed yourself, use the bathroom, play ball and ride a bike.  None of those actions would cause problems for a normal adult.  Yet as a child you spent many hours concentrating on those activities.  None of our childhood multi-functional motor and mental skills can be mastered in one day.

Moving into a new environment usually involves multi-functional issues.  Conquering those issues will require a long-term approach.  It’s important to understand that while many children integrate quickly and their fears never escalate after the fact – some children do have long term “sub-conscious” issues after a relocation.  It’s important then to take the time to be thorough in your approach.

Learning to handle “normal” anxiety about a new situation falls under the same category as learning a new motor or mental skill.  Most parents have trouble designing a plan for this new skill because they attack it on a one-dimensional level.  Anxiety can have multiple layers that must be attacked in the proper progression or your plan will fall apart.  Just like it’s important to learn the basics of math before you try to learn algebra, learning how to handle anxiety must be approached with a plan.

First, it’s important to look at all sides of your child’s unique anxiety.  Check the following chart and see if any of these problems apply to your child.

My child's new situation


(Click on image to enlarge)


If your child’s chart is similar to this one,  you might want to concentrate on communication skills and social dynamics when you develop your plan.

If your child is too small for conversation, he may only have separation anxiety.  That’s also handled in a step process.  Solving separation anxiety will involve the following steps.

  • Step one:  Stay beside him – possibly holding him – until he has met everyone in the room.  Leave when he is distracted with play.
  • Step two:  Stay beside him but don’t hold him.  Leave when he is distracted with play.
  • Step three:  Tell him that you will stand by the door but he must be with the group.  Leave when he is distracted with play.
  • Step four:  Stand outside the door.  Leave when he is distracted with play.

You can add other steps depending on your unique situation, but the goal is to gently move him away from you and into the group.  Each step is like passing a grade.  Once he has accepted the process you can move on to another step.  In other words, he is learning to ride the bike.

For older children, take another look at the Decoder Map.  With my suggestions in mind, (depending on your child’s age) schedule a one on one special outing for you and your child.  Dinner at his favorite fast food restaurant without siblings and your spouse might do the trick.  Gently steer the conversation to the problem making sure you allow him/her to carry the conversation.

Try to ask leading questions by using your own experiences or word pictures.  You could start the conversation with a compliment and a story of your own.  “I’m so proud of you!  I know a lot of people that would have trouble moving to a new school. “

“Like who?”

“Like me!”  I had to move once and it was a really hard thing to do.  (If you haven’t had to do that, you could use other examples like changing jobs, churches, a best friend moves away – any situation that caused you stress.)  “I hated it.”

“Really?  How come?”

“I felt like everyone was staring at me.  I didn’t like that.  It made me nervous and I made a lot of mistakes.”

The conversation can go in a thousand different directions when you open your life to your child.  When you share your pain, it connects you in a totally different way than if you brag and insist that they should toughen up.  Just be sure that you have an answer if or when your child asks what to do.   Even if you didn’t do it right, you can always say, ”I wish I would have known that relaxing and being myself was the right answer.”

During this conversation with your child, look for clues to “why” this is so hard for them.  Look for clues that would fit within your Decoder map.  Watch for things like self-esteem, lack of conversational skills, different talents that would make it hard to fit in.  Later at home, plug those traits, skills and personality issues into your map.

Once you have a clear picture of why he is having such a hard time, you can begin your plan.  Be careful not to center too heavily on one issue.  Remember that anxiety is a multi-layered problem.  Yes, he may be afraid but he probably has other issues that support that fear.

(1) Your plan should start at home.  Check to be sure your child fills an important niche at home.  After all, the largest chunk of our self-esteem is learned at home.  Make sure he has the talent to do whatever task you choose.  The task should fit his age and make him feel proud.  You wouldn’t ask a 10 year old to derive his main thrust of self-esteem from setting the table or being the manager of garbage control.  The self-esteem builder should be something he can mention to friends and feel pride.  Perhaps he could teach a sibling how to play a game on the computer.  He could download recipes for the family or he could help Dad in the shop and learn to make shelving for his room.  Sanding and painting will not only increase his self-esteem; it will provide quality time with Dad or others in the family.

If your child is younger, stretch his talents by asking him to do things for the family such as “helping” with “big” chores (just the fun ones please J).  Be sure and use a lot of comments and praise.

(2) Become familiar with the teacher and the class as a whole.  Once he has something to be proud of at home, begin stepping toward school.  Find an excuse to visit.  Older children feel self-conscious if Mom “walks” them into school.  Be as inconspicuous as possible.  Watch the other children and Pay attention to the dynamics of the classroom.  Get a feel for how your child might react to each one of his “potential” friends.  Connect with the teacher.  No matter how dedicated the teacher, our subconscious is wired to give a little extra “Tender Loving Care” to those we personally know.  You don’t want your son to be tagged as “teacher’s pet” but taking a basket of fruit to the teacher when the kids aren’t present will naturally help the teacher/child relationship.

Ask the teacher if the room needs anything.  A new book, special pencils, stickers etc…  Check the dollar store and see if there’s a special school supply that your son could “donate” to the class.  There’s no need to spend a lot of money, you are simply trying to give your son a “reason” to be proud of his contribution to the classroom.  Be careful that the donation is something the class would like or will use.  There’s nothing worse than getting teased by other ten-year-old boys because you donated pencils with teddy bears on them.  Another good choice might be cupcakes or popcorn or pretzels.  Just be sure to ask the teacher first.

Why the donation?  Everyone feels a little calmer and a little more proud when he/she arrives at the party with a dish or gift that everyone loves.   School is no different.  Imagine how you feel when you arrive at work and everyone pops up and smiles because you brought donuts.  If you know the teacher will be excited about a little something extra for the class, the entire dynamics of the situation changes.  Caring and providing for the class will bring your son instant attention and may help him feel less anxious.

(3) Be on the lookout for one good friend.  Volunteer to arrive a little early before school is out and help the class with a project.  Offer to teach the class a skill or help with library books.  Use any excuse that will put you in the room without suspicion.  This will give you the opportunity to see friendship possibilities.  Look for children that seem to be responding to your son but haven’t received his attention because he’s nervous.  See if there’s a way to connect them with same likes or talents.  Perhaps you can find a way to connect the two boys after school.

Think about the first time you entered a new situation.  Most of us are thinking…. “If I can find just one friend….I’ll be okay.  Just one person to talk to and I can make it through this.”  Help your child find that one friend and he will be on his way to losing his anxiety.

If you can help your son move through the process by opening conversation, building self-esteem at home, building a relationship with his teacher and finding one friend, you’ll be surprised at how quickly anxiety disappears.

(4) Most parents spend time helping their children with school activities.  During this anxious time it’s even more important and unfortunately most parents are too busy during a move to concentrate on educational needs.  While your child is struggling to settle in socially, you are trying to settle into a new house or a new church or even a new job.  You work all day, pick up the children, rush home to cook and push even harder to stay up to unpack or study or fill out new forms.  Even though you know your child is struggling as well, you may not readily think to hug, praise, check on homework or even just snuggle for confidence.  If you add frustration and arguments to that, the situation can quickly become unbearable for your child.

When you schedule your day be sure to make time for homework, schedule time to help with personal problems, take moments to hug, compliment and create self-esteem.  All of these suggestions will not only help your child integrate into his school, but they will help him handle stress and anxiety for the rest of his life.


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