McNerney: First Day of School Jitters

By Neil McNerney, Parenting With Purpose

The school supply lists are published, the stores are full of supplies, and students are beginning to feel the worry about back-to-school.

Each year brings new stresses, both to parents and students. I’ve heard dozens of stories about the new password system in Loudoun and how frustrating it can be just to log in to the system to view email, check schedules, and see which friends are in which classes. Technology has brought a new level of stresses to an already stressful time of year.

It is a stressful time of year, absolutely. Our goal, as parents, is to do what we can to decrease that stress without taking over. Our children need to learn how to navigate their lives and should be involved in the details. Depending on their age, every child should be able to participate in most aspects of the preparations. For instance:

No matter how tempting it might be to just get the back-to-school shopping done on your own, make sure to include your child. It’s important to get their input. They will definitely have an opinion on what looks good and what they will never be caught wearing.

Sit down together to work on the technology side of school. There will be logins to memorize, schedules to review, and forms to fill out. Yes, your child might find it boring, but it is important that they know the information, especially when it comes to the student rights and responsibilities.

By the way, if you don’t yet know what a Juul is and what it looks like, take a moment to search online. It’s not a USB memory stick, which is what many students try to convince their parents when caught with one. Even if you think your child would never use one, it is always best to be prepared.

Some of these suggestions will help your child feel more prepared for school, but most will still feel quite a bit of worry. What if I don’t know anyone? What if it’s too hard? What if my teacher is mean? Who will I sit with at lunch?

Our first reaction to these worries is to reassure. My suggestion is: Don’t jump to reassurance right away. Here’s a step by step process you can try when your child has expressed a worry:

1. Indicate that you understand they are worried.

2. Ask if they have dealt with similar worries in the past.

3. Encourage them to brainstorm solutions.

4. Let them know that you have confidence in their bravery.

For instance, your fourth grader is worried that she won’t have any friends in her class, and that she’ll be lonely and scared the first day. Our first reaction tends to be something like: “I’m sure you will have friends in the class. Don’t worry.” Instead let’s try the four-step process:

1. You’re really worried about this, aren’t you?

2. How did you deal with this worry last year?

3. Is there anything you can do today to make you feel better?

4. I know it takes a lot of bravery to go to the first day of school.

Now, we’ll try this with a high school student. For instance, your 10th grader will be taking a very difficult math class and doesn’t have much confidence he will do well:

1. You’re not so sure about how you are going to do in math this year and it’s got you really worried.

2. Were you worried about any classes last year before they started? I think I remember you were worried about math last year, as well.

3. Do you remember how you dealt with that worry? What do you think you can do this year so that you will do well?

4. I know it’s scary to face such a big challenge, but I’ve seen you face other challenges.

The goal of these steps is to slow the process and don’t jump to reassuring or problem solving. Our goal should be not to reassure our children, but to help them learn to reassure themselves. If we guide them along, they can learn to calm themselves and solve their problems. This is ultimately our goal, isn’t it?

Neil McNerney

Neil McNerney is a licensed professional counselor and author ofHomework – A Parent’s Guide To Helping Out Without Freaking Out!andThe Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s. He can be reached at

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