Ask a Researcher: How to Discuss School Anxiety, Violence, and Bullying With Kids

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Published September 14, 2022

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The start of the school year can be stressful for children, as well as their parents and family members. “It is common for children to have anxious feelings at the start of a school year, especially if they are going to a new school,” says Amanda Nickerson, PhD, Director of the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention at UB’s Graduate School of Education.

Nickerson says issues children may be concerned about include who their teachers and classmates will be, whether they will fit in, and if they can do the work at school. In addition, students with separation anxiety may worry about their parents/family while they are away from them. Then there are the issues of bullying and school violence.

Here, Nickerson discusses how parents can help their children overcome these anxieties, how to deal with bullying, and how to discuss school violence. (Note that the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention’s annual Alberti Conference will be held on October 12.)

 

Back-to-school anxiety

“Parents can acknowledge that it is normal and common to be anxious when school starts and ask if there are things that their child is worried about so that they can problem-solve and plan for these. For example, some children may worry that they will not know anyone in their class, so encouraging them to ask friends about their teachers/schedule or contacting parents of friends to find out can help. If they are worried about how to get around school, take advantage of opportunities to visit the school or connect with someone to show them around.”

The importance of a routine

“It is helpful to have a good routine, starting at least a week before the start of school. This includes going to bed and getting up at regular times, planning for lunches and snacks, knowing how the child will get to and from school, and being prepared with school supplies. It is essential that parents do not allow their children to avoid attending school due to anxiety as this will only reinforce the anxiety and make it more difficult to return.”

Discussing school violence

“Parents can make time to talk about this, but should not force it, and children’s questions should guide these conversations. Although parents are understandably concerned about things like school shootings given the media attention, we want to make sure we are not putting our fears and worries onto our children. Asking questions about how safe our children feel on the way and to and from school, finding out about the school’s safety, security, and bullying prevention policies, and talking about what children know about keeping safe in a variety of situations, is helpful. Parents can also provide clear, direct facts about school violence, but it is best not to give graphic or frightening details. Providing accurate reassurances about safety is also advised.”

Ensuring kids are not bullied — or doing the bullying

“There isn’t a magical formula to make a child bully-proof, but there are several things parents can do to reduce the likelihood of their child being involved in bullying and to help them cope if it occurs. Keeping the lines of communication open with children is key. Talking to children about peer relationships, bullying, and other social interactions routinely — not by grilling them, but by listening and learning about their interactions — is helpful. Showing interest in what is happening and how the child feels about and deals with it will make it more likely that parents will know about bullying if it happens."

Identifying warning signs

“Warning signs that may indicate a child is being bullied or experiencing some other stressor, can include changes in behavior — declining grades, avoiding school or social situations, becoming quieter and withdrawn; physical symptoms — stomachaches, headaches, trouble sleeping not explained by illness; unexplained cuts or bruises; loss of friends; and decreased self-esteem.”

Recommendations for younger vs. older kids

“Bullying occurs as young as preschool, but it generally peaks in grades four through seven and spikes in transitions to new schools — elementary to middle school, middle school to high school — as new social structures are established. It tends to decrease later in high school and beyond, but at that time it can also change in form to related behaviors like sexual harassment or hazing. With younger children, we want to emphasize the importance of letting a trusted adult know if there is bullying. Although we also want older kids to have that as an option, giving them multiple strategies to cope and to stick up for others is important as well. For older children cyberbullying is more likely to occur, so having guidance for use of technology is a good proactive way to try to prevent cyberbullying.”

Parents can help

"Being a good role model is important. Treating others with respect and dignity, and being assertive and problem-solving through difficult situations helps to lead the way for our children. Having consistent and high expectations for children’s behavior, and monitoring their behavior (including time on phone, computer, etc.) is also critical. Parents can help children problem-solve how to cope with different situations, and by giving a range of options: tell a trusted adult, reach out to others who are rejected or bullied, don’t join in with the bullying, and find others who don’t like it and can take a stand against it. We have more information for parents about bullying in this fact sheet.”

Promoting positive school culture and student well-being at home

“Many of the strategies mentioned for how parents can ensure that students are not involved in bullying are applicable here: role modeling, open communication, problem-solving. Being positive and supportive of education as well as the diversity of people and opinions that the children will encounter and providing opportunities to teach and reinforce social-emotional competencies — being aware of emotions of self and others, managing behavior and emotions, relationship skills, decision-making — are also helpful.”