Ask the Expert: Sharon Selby on back-to-school and other childhood anxieties

For some children, returning to school in September is exciting. They look forward to making new friends and learning new subjects. However, other children can find these same things quite daunting, and the idea of so much sudden change can cause them stress and anxiety. With a fresh school year just around the corner, we invited our expert Sharon Selby to answer our users’ questions about preparing for back-to-school. Sharon has been counseling children, teens, and families for the last twenty years. She has accumulated over 11,000 clinical hours supporting children, teens and families experiencing diverse challenges such as anxiety, self-regulation, low self-esteem, and behavior concerns. She obtained her Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology and has post-graduate training in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy — the “gold standard” for anxiety treatment — as well as being a Certified Parenting Facilitator.

Here are the highlights from our webchat with Sharon Selby. Please keep in mind all user participation is anonymous.

Overcoming nervousness about group activities

QUESTION — “My son is often nervous of joining group activities, especially within larger groups like soccer or skating lessons or even just entering his daycare classroom in the morning. He has said in a few situations that he doesn’t like everyone looking at him. Once he is in, he does really well and enjoys himself. How can we help encourage him to overcome his fear so that he can fully enjoy his activities? Should we be pushing him to do things if he doesn’t seem interested because of the group situation?”

Sharon Selby — “Your son sounds like a highly sensitive child. These children often believe that everyone is looking at them and therefore feel very self-conscious when entering group situations.  It’s really positive that you have been encouraging him to face his fears and join these groups even though he feels anxious.  It’s also very important to debrief with him afterwards and help him realize that even though he felt really nervous in the beginning, by pushing through, the nervous feelings went away!  This is exactly what we want.  So many children avoid making their nervous feelings go away, but then the anxiety gets bigger and bigger and impacts their life even more.  If he can learn about brain science and true alarms vs. false alarms, this would help him too.”

Working through tricky classes

QUESTION — “I also have a daughter going into grade 11 who is so convinced math is her nemesis that this is affecting her ability to see her real skills clearly (as identified by previous teachers). How can I help her set herself up for a more pleasant experience in school?”

Sharon Selby — “It’s important for her to know that we all have strengths and struggles. She may find math more difficult, but since her teachers see that she is capable, she needs to trust their professional assessment. She would probably benefit from a math tutor who can help her build confidence in this area. Hopefully she realizes that her negative thoughts are primarily connected to math, and therefore do not need to spread to her other subjects. The anxiety voice is not rational and so she needs to realize that all our thoughts are not real. We have to use the facts to know what is actually real.’”

Bullying and moving forward

QUESTION — “Any tips to help an 11-year-old boy minimize his anxiety about going back to school because of past bullying experience?”

Sharon Selby — “It’s very difficult when there’s been past bullying experiences, but hopefully you were able to get on top of that by the end of last school year.  You’ll want to help him to see that just because it happened last year, it doesn’t mean this is permanent.  Use as much evidence from previous successes as possible.  This is a new year and hopefully he will be in a class with good buddies and a supportive teacher.  I would meet with the teacher ahead of time to be sure that he/she is aware of last year’s situation.  If he has some good friends that you could meet up with before school starts and walk to school with, that would help.  It’s important that he realizes that his physical feelings of anxiety are not a sign that he’s actually in danger; this is what the body does when we’re stressed, but it’s a ‘false alarm’. He’s not actually in danger.”

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 September 19 at 12PM EST to chat with certified financial planner Bob Gavlak, who will be answering your questions about getting a grip on your finances. 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.