One Helping of Back-to-School Anxiety with a Side of Meltdown to go

Posted July 28, 2008 by

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Back in January, my friend Julie asked me, “Has your kindergarten stomach ache started yet?” When I gave her a puzzled look, she said, “I’ve already started to freak out about Eli starting kindergarten in the fall.” I knew what she meant-ever since my son turned 5, I’d been dreading his graduation into the big boy world of backpacks, Power Rangers, and visits from the tooth fairy. I know it sounds terrible-I should be celebrating every milestone, right? But the truth is, while I love seeing my son grow, a part of me can’t help but mourn a little for the baby he was.

Fast forward to a parents-only kindergarten orientation in early June. The teachers at my son’s new school did a little presentation and slide show of kindergarten activities, showing us what would happen from the time our children got on the bus until the time they came home. I looked around the room at all the anxious faces (one woman was sniffling into a tissue) and realized that this little assembly had been put together not so that we parents could tell our kids about kindergarten, but to reduce our collective anxiety about our children going to school for the first time. To be honest, my son has been excited about kindergarten and the prospect of riding the school bus since he was 4 years old. I almost laughed when I realized that it was the parents who needed the reassurance from the teachers, not just the kids.

And then summer hit, and along with the hot weather came my son’s full-blown regression back to toddlerhood. Much to my chagrin (and occasional embarrassment) he’s gone back in time emotionally to the toddler stage: we’ve experienced the Full Monty of babytalking, thumbsucking, and complete “terrible two” style meltdowns that shake the neighborhood. And the next minute, he’s climbing a tree like a monkey, asking me where black holes come from, and striking up a conversation about soccer with a neighbor at a BBQ. I was completely stumped until my friend Joan hit the nail on the head. “Kindergarten. It’s classic. A lot of kids go backwards a little before big changes in their lives, and especially before they go to kindergarten.” I knew she was right-that’s exactly what’s been happening. I talked to one of his pre-school teachers, a classroom veteran of 25 years. She suggested I take him to school for a little tour before kindergarten started. “You can also play the ‘What if’ game,” she said. “Let him start. Keep it light at first. Then you can slip in something like, ‘What if you get to kindergarten and everyone’s new,’ and then talk about it together.”

Armed with this tried-and-true advice, I pounced as my son was eating a Popsicle after dinner one night last week. “Want to play the ‘What if?’ game?”  He nodded, his lips stained Joker-red by the Popsicle.

“You start, Mommy.”

“OK, what if you get to kindergarten, and the teacher is wearing a rabbit on her head?” He laughed, and then he thought for awhile. I waited with bated breath, sure that I’d get some insight into his fears about the unknown territory of the big-kid world. He was pensive for a moment, then looked me right in the eye.

“OK. What if…you took me to Target right now and bought me a toy?” I sat there staring at him, a little disappointed that he hadn’t revealed any deep dark fears. When I didn’t reply, he continued by throwing in, “…And what if you bought something for yourself, too?”

Then I laughed. The truth is, he’s dealing with kindergarten his own way, and it’s probably working for him. He’s started asking me more questions, too, like, “Do they have crayons at kindergarten? Will there be other boys?” And the current oft-whispered pre-school rumor, “Do they really send you home if you have to go potty?”

I’ll let you know how the first week of school goes, but until then,  I’ve decided to chill out a little…(but I am signing up for that kindergarten tour!)

Have you ever noticed your child regressing when they’re anxious, and do you have any good ideas on how to handle it? How are you dealing with back-to-school transitions or concerns? Are there any other times in your child’s life when you noticed that they’ve been nervous about school? Tell us what you do to calm their fears…and your own!


Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.

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  1. Problem Solved Report

    I am one of those who had lots of anxiaty growing up. Can’t explain why. I had a secure family. But when I was 5 and had to go to kindergarten my Mom was pushing me from the outside and the teacher was pulling me from the inside . I was screaming and holding onto the doorpost. I often vomited. Had all kinds of belly aches. They sent me to psysologists. Eventually I outgrow it by the time I was 18. I was on medication till I was 14. It really didn’t work. About 80% of the time when I had to depart from my mom (even just for a short time) inside of me I was in trauma. I can’t explain why. There was nothing in school what I was dreading. I was an A-B student all the time. I loved to preform, and I knew that the teacher liked me. Since she knew my struggles she many times offered me to do special tasks what I liked. I loved to do them, but it did not releaved at all my anxieties. Neither the medication I got. Even when I was older (12-17)and choose to go to 2 days field trips or school camps or to stay with my grandma (with my siblings, I had 5)I shed lots of tears. I still can’t explain why. I just felt terrible to be away from my mom. It is harth wrenching to hear about all of these children. I have 4 childrennow. My oldest one would sweat blood just from the tought of going to school. My second one needed speach and physical therapy at age 3-6. She got it through our school district and was mistreated by the speach therapist. So someone finially opened our eyes, and we were ushered into the wonderful world of homeschooling. What a difference! We are not in isolation, there are lots of opportunity (actually a lot more than if they would go to public school)to serve our community and participate in public work. I certainly would not force the poor little souls to go somewhere were they are dreading to go. At least for the time being> They need to be assured, that they are loved by those who they love the most. If you push them away from yourself now when they need you the most, do not expect them to come back to you when they think that they “know it better”. ( in those wonderful teenage years. ) Why would they?

  2. Elisabeth Wilkins, EP Editor Report

    Wendy, It’s so hard to see our kids suffering and feel powerless to help them. The good news is there are some things you may be able to do to coach your son through his anxiety.

    We have some excellent articles on EP about kids and anxiety (with hands-on advice for parents) that I think might *really* be helpful in your situation–please read them. Here is the link:

    Hope this helps, and let us know how it goes with your son.

  3. Wendy Report

    My son recently vomited in his classroom. He is in 3rd grade. Ever since then, he thinks that he is going to vomit in school, so he gets anxiety over it, and then ends of vomiting. He has been locking himself in the bathroom, refusing to go to school, and crying and insisting he can’t do it. He now makes sure he vomits before he goes to school, thinking that he won’t have to vomit at school. We have taken him to a therapist who said that he has anxiety. He also goes to the school psychologist on a daily basis to calm down and reassure himself. Can anyone offer any advice on his fear of school all of a sudden. He said that he wasn’t embarassed by getting sick at school, but apparently he really affected him. He also also got sick on our way to a family get-together, and said that he was nervous because he hasn’t seen everyone in a while. My husband and I both have a degree of anxiety, but we are very functional and both professionals. We have a good family life and are not sure what our son is so anxious about. Please help!!!

  4. Jean Report

    I was reading all of the comments and some sound exactly like what my child is going through. The refusing to get out of the car, stomach aches, not want to go to school. My child is in the 5th grade. She says it is because her teacher is mean, we have talked with her teacher, assistant principal, and school counselor. We have hired a therapist to see her every week. We came up with a plan for her to not go directly in to the classroom but to help do something in the office. She got out of the car no problem. Now we are back to having the Assistant Principal get her out. The resource officer had to pull her out a couple of times. This is not typical 5th grader behavior. Once the day gets started,she has no problems at all. The good days are great but the bad days are heartbreaking and aggravating for my husband and me. Maybe therapy will help. As a parent I want my child to a happy healthy part of this world, so any other advice on dealing with anxiety would be appreciated.

  5. gina Report

    my son who is justturning 5 started pre k and also went to a pre school 3 morning a week last year. A week after school started he started doing this nervous tic with his mouth. Dr said this is common and most of the time it will stop after a month. I am so worried he will have this tic for life and will be maid fun of in school for it.

  6. Holly Report

    I literally just got off of the phone from describing my son’s anxious behavior to a doctor!! I opened my email and amazingly the newsletter is addressing the very same issue!!!!!!!! Thank you so much! I was feeling that we had a unique thing going on here and I feel comforted to know that it is not as uncommon as I thought. I am looking forward to next week’s issue and James Lehman’s advice!!

  7. Ashlea Report

    Jennifer, this sounds so much like my Emily. First few days of kindergarten were fine and now she cries everyday when I leave her but teacher and her say she has a good
    day once she is there and she says she likes school. I
    am not sure what I can do to help with the crying, etc
    in the am as I know the workers in the car line are
    tired of having to walk her in. Me walking her in didnt
    help so I am back to car line..I have even promised
    Gatti Town but even that is working.

  8. Jennifer Report

    My son is 5 and just started Kindergarten three days ago, over summer vacation we read stories about kindergarten, talked about it ect.. he was really excited about going. The first day he was fine kissed him good bye and that was it, second day I dropped him off he was also fine, But that afternoon his teacher called me and told me Alex was crying out at recess and was looking extremly nervous and just sobbing. So I asked him about it and he told me “he could’nt see his teacher outside and he also doent know any of the kids yet either” so he got really scared and thought he was lost from his class. The next day he melted down outside his classroom and I had to stay for 1hr til he was atleast calm. He was fine after I left the teacher told me. The next day was horrible I could’nt even get him out of the car, he was kicking, screamng, and crying it took me 20 mins. to get him to the door of the school. The when outback at the play yard waiting for the teacher he was freaking out, so she told me to walk him up to the class were he continued to melt down. The teacher and I both had to get him into the classroom, where I had to turn around and leave my crying son there. Its heartbreaking!!!! ps. when i pick him up he tells me he had a great day and loved school, but does’nt want to come back on monday. Any suggestions?

  9. Sue G. Report

    My 10 year old daughter presented with similar issues after the Christmas break last year. Seemingly out of the blue, she developed severe anxiety attacks, having to frequently urinate and complained of stomach and headaches. She bordered on school refusal and for a time, had to sit outside her classroom because she could not bring herself to enter. I had her in the Emergency Room a few times, had the counties Head Start program counselors come to try to get her out of the locked bathroom, all types of medical tests and constant communication with anyone in the school that would listen to me. My child was breaking my heart because I didn’t know how to help her. This apparently was spurned by the separation of her father and myself 8 months prior. She is now in wonderful therapy and learning how to deal with her Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I was told that she was prone to this disorder and it was going to present itself no matter what. She is doing much better now, but she is still not completely out of the woods yet. We go to therapy every week. On the bright side, I am grateful it came out now instead of when she is 14-15-16 years old.

  10. james Report

    Suzanne » You really did a good job of describing your daughter’s problem. I’d like to begin by saying that it seems to me that something happened over Christmas that is causing her to be really afraid of being away from you. Remember, anxiety is the manifestation of fear. And your daughter is described by her teacher as being quite well-adjusted, able to deal with authority, and socialize with peers successfully. Her anxiety seems to begin after Christmas and is getting more severe in intensity and frequency. So when you see an abrupt change like this, I would be looking more toward what might have traumatized her. I would suggest you try to get her in with a therapist who has experience with trauma in children. As for the towel that she carries as a security blanket, I would by no means fight with her to give that up. Your daughter is using that to help keep herself intact. You may have observed a sense of panic in her when you tried to take the towel away, or if she ever misplaced it. That is not an act. Your daughter is using that towel to keep herself together. I would discourage any effort to abruptly take it away until the underlying issue, problem, or trauma is resolved. Avoid the advice of those who say “It’s not right that she does that. Just take it away. She’ll get over it.” Traumatized people do not “get over it.” They have to work through it and resolve it. I’m sorry if I’ve alarmed you, but your comment raised a red flag with me because in so many cases like this, where the intense anxiety emerges seemingly out of nowhere, there is some powerful force at work which is disrupting your daughter’s sense of safety.
    Just to be clear Suzanne, the traumatic event which may have triggered this level of anxiety wasn’t necessarily physical. Sometimes adults say things to each other which can really alarm a child if they overhear it. These things are not always said in anger, either. Talk of divorce or separation, serious illness or impending death, or even talk of selling a house and moving can upset a child. Also, it’s possible your daughter’s sudden onset of this behavior may not have been triggered by any of these things, but trauma is the first thing that has to be ruled out as a cause. I wish you and your daughter well, and hope this is helpful to you.

  11. jacci gunther Report

    Sounds like she may have an anxiety disorder. You may benefit from getting a diagnosis by a professional. They may not be willing to medicate (which can significantly help) but the diagnosis will help you establish a need for a IEP or alternative plan at school. The school will be obligated to assist the child during the school day.

    My son was allowed to attend school for a couple of hours each day then increasing the school day little by little until he could handle it easier. Other ideas for you that we used was the teacher could not call on him unless he volunteered. He was also placed in the same class as a few familiar peers from the previous years to feel more secure.

    None of this process is quick and easy and you may get told “no” but keep persisting until they give you what is reasonable and helpful.

    One year the principal did not accommodate us and my son ended up at an all time low. The school ended up having to pay for a teacher to come home school him for 6 months.

    Good luck, and don’t give up trying to get what you need.

  12. Suzanne Report

    My daughter sounds similar to Teresa’s in that she is a perfectionist and had a very hard time with anxiety during the last half of kindergarten this past year. She was fine until after the Christmas break when she started complaining that her stomach hurt and she had heartburn, she began refusing to take the bus to school, and she would often end up in the nurse’s office complaining that she felt nauseous. She also began taking a towel with her in her backpack – kind of like a blanket – and this dependency grew during the end of the school year and over the summer until now she cannot go anywhere without the towel and dissolves into tears when she can’t find it. We are at a loss as to what to do. Her teacher said that when she was in class she was always outgoing and smiling, and she had many good friends. Now she doesn’t want to go to friend’s birthday parties or any public place really because she feels too anxious. What can we do?

  13. Megan Devine, LCPC Report

    Teresa –

    It sounds like you are doing a great job helping your daughter learn techniques to calm herself down in stressful situations. That’s a powerful gift to give anyone – the ability to care for themselves when life doesn’t go as smoothly as we’d like. You might also create some role plays together – set up scenarios that she has already experienced, or is afraid of, then role play the different responses she might have. You can also role play the different likely outcomes for each reponse. For example, you and she might role play a tough new lesson the teacher is giving. If your daughter feels nervous or tense, one response might be to start crying, resulting in a trip to the nurse’s office. Role play and discuss whether going to the nurse’s office helps her feel more able to learn, or more safe at school. Another response to the tough lesson might be to ask for help, with the outcome being receiving help from the teacher. Role play a second scenario where asking for help doesn’t help – if the teacher makes fun of her, or the other kids do. To bring some playfulness into your role plays, another response might be something completely ridiculous and silly.

    Be sure to let her know that the way she has been responding to her fears isn’t “wrong,” or “bad” – it just hasn’t helped her feel calm and capable. The point of this practice is to help your daughter articulate her fears and learn how to address those fears in ways that actually help improve the situation.

    You can even address her concerns about having a tough teacher by saying, “He might even be a great teacher, we don’t know yet. But if he turns out to be really tough, we’ll figure out a way to work through it, together.” If you do have real concerns about your daughter’s teacher once school starts, be sure to speak with the guidance department or the principal.

    Good luck!

  14. Teresa Report

    I am really concerned about the new school year. I have a girl going into 4th and one going into 3rd and another entering pre-K. the one going into 3rd is the concern. She is above average in school-gets along very well with kids and teachers but she is a perfectionist. And when she doesn’t understand something or thinks she does, and then gets it wrong, she can’t handle it. At the end of the school year-when they try to cram the rest of the year into one month, I was called every day at 11am (when the kids are learning new stuff for the day) from the nurse that my child had a stomach ache and was in tears. She was also very embarassed about this. She understands what this is about and we have worked on techniques for her to use to calm herself down. However, it started up again this summer when there wasn’t anything going on to give her angst and it concerned her as well that this was happening again.

    Right now things are calm. But we learned that there is a 5th grade teacher moving to third grade. He is a tyrant. And apparantly picks on the kids with low self- esteem (can anyone say “Adult bully?”) I have assured my daughter that this is going to be a fabulous year and Mr so and so is going to be a great teacher (she may not be in his class-don’t know yet)and she will learn alot. Obviously, I will have my ear to the door if she does get him. But in the meantime, I am getting a bit crazy over her angst. Her sister assured her that she will be fine in 3rd grade but I know she is very nervous.


  15. Kris Report

    At kindergarten “round-up”, my son was running to join the group, and I was the wacko mom sniffling in front of the principle. I was actually laughing- crying. Crying because my insides ached over what was taking place and laughing that I was crying about it. Never thought myself a softy, but this really knocks the wind out of me. No solutions; but the crying AND laughing sure helps!

  16. Elisabeth Wilkins Report

    Brooke: I’ll get to that in the next blog post. 🙂 Believe me, there have been a few times lately when I’ve wanted to throw a tantrum myself!

  17. Carolyn Report

    My son is going into middle school this year and was nervous about all the changes that come with it. Luckily, his older cousin came to visit this summer and told Tyler about how much fun he had last year when he started middle school. Now my son is actually excited! Sometimes I think it works better for them to hear it from another kid.



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