I am very worried about my son. He just turned 5 and is starting kindergarten this year. He is very nervous about taking the bus for the first time, eating lunch at school and going to the afterschool program. What can I do to ease the transition for him?

Many children, depending on the periods in their lives, may be confronted with fears, concerns or stressful life events. For example, a child may be afraid when he has to make an oral presentation at school or write a review. In these situations, the nervousness experienced by the child is normal and it may even help him to better remember his text or further study for a test. In that circumstance, the child has a quite healthy response to a request from its environment. The child may demonstrate some manifestations of these "nerves": change in behavior, sleep problems, higher heart rate, for example. These are often the same symptoms seen in adults.

Some so-called normal anxieties:
Separation anxiety is a normal stage of development of the child. It happens around the age of eight months while baby reacts more strongly when you disappear from his view. To help baby cope with this reality, the parent will say goodbye to the child in a reassuring tone and baby will realize over time that the parent always comes back. It is at this stage of development that baby will play « peek-a-boo » by hiding the face. This game will amuse and reassure the child.

Nightmares and fears are also part of the normal development of children and usually start around the age of three or four. Your child may be afraid of the shadows in his room, of what hides in the wardrobe or under his bed. For the child, fear is very real and we should try to reassure and listen to him. You can also look with him under the bed to show him that he has nothing to fear. The idea is to encourage him to express himself and thus, the bond of trust between he and you as parents will be reinforced.

At any age a child may experience more intense periods of anxiety. The child may become more irritable, more restless, or even sad. One can even observe physical events such as upset stomach or diarrhea. A move, the start of school, a change of school, a final match, current events, or even our own anxiety may contribute to the stress felt by the child.

Some children wish so to succeed so much in school that any test or examination brings a high level of anxiety. The fact is that the higher the anxiety, the less the child is available cognitively in order to succeed. In addition, the often very busy schedules of children with school and extracurricular activities may contribute to increased stress experienced by children, even when the activities are of interest to them.

What is a parent to do?

Taking the time to ask questions and to investigate what is happening will allow us to understand what is causing concern and help us help our child to feel less alone with his discomfort. We must listen to him and help him to put words on his emotions. This is not necessarily to find a quick solution but rather in order to allow our child to speak. It is not helpful to blame ourselves as parents. The idea is to search for solutions to remedy the situation. The parent can help the child to question his « scenarios » or his inner dialogue by asking questions. If the child is afraid that his parent will forget to pick him up at school, you can ask if this has already happened and discuss with him what solutions would be possible if it actually happened. Give practical ways to be more effective to reassure him that you understand his worries but that he doesn't have any reason to be worried.

When it gets more serious:
Some children feel more "anxious" than "nervous". These children often seem stressed or worried, and have great difficulty to face new situations or challenges. The discomfort that they live with is very important, and these children, to protect themselves, begin to avoid situations that make them anxious. This is when the anxiety level is important enough to interfere with the day-to-day activities of the child. At this point, one may need to appeal to professionals to help the child handle this pervasive anxiety. Research tells us that about 6% of children and teens live with an anxiety level high enough to require treatment. The causes of these problems and disorders are complex: hereditary predispositions, psychological factors and life events are all factors that can contribute to anxiety disorder. Without treatment, anxiety disorders may become greatly overwhelming.

Mental health specialists agree that parents should consult if anxiety gets in the way of family activities, if it prevents the child from getting or keeping friends, if sleep is disturbed, if anxiety gives him physical ailments preventing him from going to school or if the child is faced with extreme phobias.

I invite you to read on the subject, here are some some links in English and in French:

www.helpguide.org/mental/anxiety_types_symptoms_treatment.htm
www.anxietybc.com
www.cheo.on.ca/En/anxiety
www.revivre.org/utilisateur/documents/T. anxieux/Les troubles anxieux chez l'enfant et l'adolescent (Revivre).pdf
www.ordrepsy.qc.ca/pdf/2012_03_Cahier_RetP_Dossier_02_Young_Fr.pdf

In « Pourquoi j'ai mal au ventre? Guide pratique de l'anxiété chez l'enfant de 7 à 12 ans », the Québec psychoéducator Susie Gibson Desrochers suggests about 40 exercises to help our child control his anxiety. (Logiques, 2011, 19,95 $).

« The Anxiety Cure For Kids: A Guide For Parents », is a up-to-date, practical guide for helping your child deal with anxiety : fear, worry, stomach pains, self-doubt—these are classic symptoms of anxiety in children. Using kid-friendly concepts and real-life examples, this reassuring guide helps adults and children understand the powerful ways in which anxiety works and how we can better control it. (by Elizabeth Dupont Spencer, Trade Paperback, 2014, 15,00$).

In conclusion, our role as parents is to allow our child to flourish and become more self-sufficient. Teaching him to better manage his stress and anxiety will enable him to gain the self-confidence he needs to be able to cope with the challenges and the surprises of life!

**The masculine pronoun (he) has been used in this article for simplicity and not for gender preference.