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Ask the Expert: Sharon Selby on addressing back-to-school anxiety

September is a hectic time for most families. From adjusting to more rigid schedules to navigating new classmates and teachers, there are many stressful aspects of going back to school. Registered clinical counselor Sharon Selby joined our live Ask the Expert session last week to help our users develop strategies for getting their families through this transition period. Sharon holds a Master of Arts degree in Counseling Psychology, and it’s her passion to support children, teens, and families struggling with anxiety. She loves working with children and began her career as a preschool teacher, then an elementary school teacher, and has since been counseling children and families for the last seventeen years. She and her husband are also immersed in their own parenting journey, as they raise their 11-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter.

Here are the highlights from our webchat with Sharon. For our French users, we ran a similar webchat with psychoeducator Stéphanie Deslauriers, which you can access here. Please keep in mind all user participation is anonymous and confidential.

Tackling separation anxiety

QUESTION — “My child (7 years) cries every morning before school saying he doesn’t want to go, can he please stay home…. It breaks my heart, but I act tough and try my best to reassure him. I did speak to his teachers and they said he seems to be coping well in school. I don’t really know if that is true. He tells me he is sad all day until I come get him at the end of the day. Any advice on how to help him?”

Sharon Selby — “It’s so difficult when our child doesn’t want to go to school, but encouraging him to go is building his resilience. It sounds as though he has separation anxiety about leaving you in the mornings and then once he gets to school, he’s able to settle. You can do things to build a ‘bridge’ between you and him while he’s at school such as planning what you’ll do together when you pick him up from school. You may also write him a note and put it in his lunch bag. Giving him the message that you believe him and know this is hard but that he can do it is really important. You may also have a school counselor (most schools do), and you could ask him/her to monitor and check in with him to have another person he can go to for support if need be. This article may also help you.”

Normalizing nerves and anxiety

QUESTION — “My 14-year-old is so relaxed that we often mistake it for not caring, but he recently admitted to us that he acts that way because he doesn’t want to show everyone how nervous he actually is. How can I encourage him to show his feelings and that it is okay to be nervous about something?”

Sharon Selby — “It’s really good news that he has recently shared that he’s actually feeling very nervous underneath his relaxed front. This sounds like an opening to start teaching him about anxiety so that he can understand himself better and how he can manage it. It’s also important that in your home, you are talking about your own mistakes or times that you feel nervous so that he realizes that this is part of life and is okay. It would be important to try and get him to share more to understand what his anxious thoughts are saying to him. Is he having perfectionistic thoughts? Does he have any other signs of anxiety? I’m very happy for you that you now have a window into understanding his “not caring” behaviour better, and I hope that he will continue to share more so that you can support him and he can learn more about how he is coping.”

Helping children sleep through the night

QUESTION — “My 11-year-old daughter is unable to sleep the whole night in her own bed, as she claims she is anxious and scared. What can I do to sooth her fears?”

Sharon Selby — “It sounds as though your daughter starts off the night in her own bed, which is positive. I fully believe in lots of connection time and cuddles at bed-time, but then it’s important that she be able to actually put herself to sleep without you lying down next to her. If you have to lie down next to her, I would recommend sitting on a chair by her bed instead. Then over time, start moving the chair a little further away from her bed until you’re sitting in the door frame. Once she is comfortable with this, you can then tell her that you’ll be in the kitchen and you’ll check on her in 10 minutes. You can keep doing that until she falls asleep. Gradually you can extend the time in between check-ins. This will teach her that she can put herself to sleep and that there is nothing to be scared of. If she comes to you in the middle of the night, it’s important to softly walk her back to her own bed to show her that you believe in her abilities to put herself to sleep and to disprove any worries. (You may have to sit on a chair in a room while she falls back to sleep at first.) You may find this article helpful too.”

Don’t miss our next Ask the Expert session!

If you weren’t able to catch our webchat with Sharon Selby, you can always sign into your LifeSpeak account to read the transcript. And be sure to log in October 24 at 12PM EST to chat with Dr. Colleen Carney, who will discuss how to sleep better and feel better. If you don’t have a LifeSpeak account, please have your HR team reach out to us about your company subscribing.

What is Ask the Expert?

Our Ask the Expert sessions allow our users to have regular access to our experts in real time, which allows them to have their pressing questions answered. This opportunity provides our users with practical and easily implemented tips to help them make real changes in their lives. To learn more, don’t hesitate to book a walk-through.