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back-to-school anxiety

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Tips for calming back-to-school anxiety | Ask the Pediatrician

Help kids let go of perfectionism, embrace mistakes and have fun.

Back-to-school anxiety:

Kids are wrapping up summer activities and starting to think about the return to school.

Backpacks, school supplies and school schedules: all part of the fall ritual. It is an exciting time, but it can also provoke anxiety as kids think about grades and competition. Just like adults, children can feel pressure to perform well and may focus on doing things perfectly.

Let’s talk about how to help our kids let go of perfectionism. It is all about finding the right balance between setting challenging goals and not being afraid to make mistakes. Perfectionism is an impossibly high bar to meet. Changing the emphasis to high standards, growth mindset and learning from mistakes is a great way to help kids enjoy their successes, challenge themselves and not be afraid to take healthy risks.

Back-to-school anxiety: Letting go of perfectionism

What is the difference between having high standards and perfectionism? It is exciting to see kids seek excellence and push themselves to learn and grow. Sometimes, however, feeling the need to be perfect gets in the way of their happiness and growth. Kids who are intensely focused on being perfect can sometimes dwell on their mistakes, worry about doing things “right,” and may be quick to give up on tasks.

Changing the emphasis from perfect to having high standards is a healthier approach for all — kids and adults. Having high standards emphasizes setting goals that are high but reachable and shifts the focus to defining success as the result of effort and learning rather than a score or a grade.

Mistakes are OK (or even good)

Mistakes are normal. We all make them. Learning from mistakes is the trick. Of course, it’s natural to feel upset or disappointed when something does not work out. It is also no fun to see your child unhappy.

Helping children unpack the experience can take the embarrassment out of making mistakes and turn it into a learning opportunity. Thoughtful questions such as “what did you learn from this experience?” and “how would you do it differently next time?” can lead to unexpected and interesting conversations. Sometimes, you find silver linings or see that the mistake really isn’t a mistake. Anyway, humans are humans and life is full of mistakes. This is how we all learn, grow and move forward. The trick is not to focus on the mistake and forget to learn from it.

How to have a growth mindset

We have all heard our kids say in a moment of frustration “I can’t do this.” The classic “growth mindset” phrase converts it to “You can’t do it yet!” This really is a powerful idea because it reminds children that they are on a learning journey. They are growing, changing and developing new skills — all at the same time. Just because you can’t do a task today does not mean you will not master it in the future.

This approach is a great way to keep kids motivated, build resilience and encourage lifelong learning. Many elementary schools talk about growth mindset as part of their social and emotional learning. This idea will likely be familiar to your children and can get them back on track after a disappointment.

Have fun!

This, in my book, is really the most important thing. Sports, music and other extracurriculars can be very competitive and are also an important way to build friendships and new skills. Questions like “Did you have fun today?” instead of “How many goals did you score?” let kids know the activity itself is the goal. When you do talk with them about performance, let go of the word “perfect” and emphasize what they are learning and the process instead of achievement.

The reward of doing something well, praise for excellence and effort, or achievement for doing something on their own will all help nurture confidence.

More from Dr. Block and Kaiser Permanente in Seattle’s Child:

About the Author

Susanna Block

Dr. Susanna Block, MD, MPH, is a pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente in Seattle and lives with her family in Queen Anne.