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Conquering Back-To- School Worries

As August begins, I can't help but feel the back-to-school blues, even though I'm no longer a student or a school counselor. Now, I'm a parent supporting a high schooler, and it's time to get myself and my son back into the school routine.

Does back-to-school stress you out too?

Thankfully, my son has been working all summer and getting up early, so we aren't too far from our regular school routine. Another relief is that he no longer experiences the anxiety he used to have during elementary school. However, I know that many families and kids struggle with the anxiety that comes with the uncertainty and stress of starting a new school year. In this newsletter, I want to share some tips on how to support your child through the worry and anxiety that often accompanies the beginning of the school year.

I'm also excited to announce an updated course that will be released soon, designed to support middle school girls and their parents, called "Survive and Thrive In Middle School." The course is designed for your daughter to use independently, with a whole section dedicated to supporting parents in their daughters' middle school experience. With over 31 lessons, your daughter can access the support she needs whenever she faces a problem or challenge.

Now, let's explore how worry works in our brains.

Worry is a natural part of our survival mechanism, helping us stay safe and react quickly in dangerous situations. It's the alarm that helps us jump back onto the sidewalk when a car fails to yield, helps us avoid a car accident when someone is in our blind spot or prevents our kids from touching a hot stove.

Our ancestors had a remarkable worry center housed in the amygdala, which kept them safe, allowing us to be here today. Though we no longer face saber tooth tigers, our amygdala remains wired as it was for our ancestors.

When your child worries about going back to school, and their thoughts become consumed with these worries, their amygdala perceives these concerns as threats, triggering the release of fight-or-flight hormones from the adrenals. This response can happen even when there is no real danger, causing unnecessary stress.

The worry center in our brains always seeks COMFORT and CERTAINTY; when it's lacking, it urges us to AVOID the situation. This is why school-related worries can feel even scarier for children at the beginning of the school year, as comfort and certainty are often in short supply during this time.

As a parent, you can teach your kids how worry works.

It is important to explain to your children that their brains have a worry center whose main job is to keep them safe.  

Their brain interprets safety as having comfort and certainty. When their environment or thoughts are focused on worry, the worry center switches off their thinking brain and activates the survival brain, putting them into fight or flight mode to ensure safety.

The worry center then wants to keep your child safe and tells them to avoid this danger, but when we avoid the discomfort and the uncertainty, the worry center thinks it has done a great job protecting your child. It then will react more quickly to things that are uncertain and uncomfortable.

What we need to help our kids learn is that we need to retrain our worry center by teaching it that we can tolerate discomfort and uncertainty. This helps our worry center start to learn that a worry about the school year isn't an emergency and that it doesn't have to put us into fight or flight mode.

We need to help our kids learn to tolerate uncertainty and discomfort and to expect worry to show up and try to convince them to avoid things.

If back to school is tough for your kids, start doing some exposure exercises where they will have to tolerate a little discomfort or uncertainty.

This can help your child retrain their worry center and help them get ready for school.

One effective technique for parents is to help their child externalize their worry by giving it a name. For instance, I've named my worry "Amy G" because it originates in the amygdala. Externalizing worry allows children to separate themselves from anxious thoughts and emotions. By treating worry as an external entity, they can engage in more constructive self-talk and gain a sense of control over their anxiety.

Then after your child or teen has named their worry, I want the two of you to brainstorm different activities that they could do to help them step into a little of the discomfort and uncertainty that they will experience at the beginning of the school year.

Here are some ideas:

  • Going on a tour at the school
  • Volunteering to help a teacher set up their classroom
  • Making baked goods to take to the school to share with office staff or as teachers are setting up their classrooms
  • Playing on the playground
  • Practicing walking to school
  • Getting together with friends they haven't seen in a while
  • Doing an activity that requires some independence and being seen by others
  • If your child has a hard time separating from you, look for ways for them to do things away from you or practice separating from you. This could be scheduling a playdate and dropping them off at their friend's house or going to a summer program with a friend.

To further support you and your child, I've developed "7 Keys To Solving The Worry Puzzle," based on Lynn Lyon's book "The Anxiety Audit." You can download this worry sheet to help your child address their worries about going back to school.

I hope these insights and tips help you navigate the back-to-school period with a greater understanding of how our brains handle worry. Remember, it's okay to acknowledge and address worries; it's a natural part of our human experience.

Take care, and have a wonderful start to the new school year!

Best regards,
Laura Hayes
Founder of The Brave Girl Project

P.S. If you'd like more support for your daughter during middle school, keep an eye out for the upcoming release of "Survive and Thrive In Middle School." It's designed to empower her with valuable lessons and strategies to navigate this important phase of her life successfully.



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