How to Help Kids with the Sunday Scaries and School Dread

Helping kids who worry about the upcoming school week with a simple method.

Key Points:

  1. Kids get the Sunday Scaries when they dread school on Monday.
  2. School dread can prompt anxious or defiant behavior in kids.
  3. Use mindfulness with the Sigh, See, and Start method to explore that dread and help you connect with your child.

The Sunday Scaries

Who has not felt dread before work or school? Our kids feel it before school, and as adults, we can relate because we may feel it before work.

The creeping anxiety and dread that heralds the impending school and workweek are often called the “Sunday Blues” and more recently have been coined the “Sunday Scaries.” And while in my practice, kids are delighted to be back at in-person school after almost a year and a half of at least partial remote learning, they still get the Sunday Scaries. And that can lead to some very tense Sunday evenings for families dealing with their kids’ anxiety, or the angry acting out that anxiety can trigger.

Fortunately, there is something we can do about it. But before we can get to the practical tools to help kids through their Sunday, we need to understand the core emotion involved: Dread.

Understanding dread

Dread is one of the worst emotions. It is essentially the fear of fear itself, the anxiety about experiencing pain or anxiety. It is so unpleasant, that research shows most people will choose to face intense pain right away rather than have to wait for what they dread. Researcher Helen Pearson writes about dread, “Expecting something horrible can be horrible in itself.” In fact, dread is so horrible, it actually activates the pain circuits in our brain. 

The typical advice about dread is to get your mind off it with distraction. And that works, up to a point. But underneath that distraction is still dread. (I’ve always wondered if distraction actually helps or just makes the dread feel even scarier.) And for parents, especially with the new challenges of safety for kids during COVID, as the weather turns colder it can be hard to find a distraction for their kids without just turning to screens.

But another research-based strategy for dread is to get through it. While avoiding anxiety is a motivating force; it is better to process it, rather than be paralyzed by it.

And that is exactly what parents can help their kids to do: to process the dread of the school week rather than allow them to be paralyzed by it.

Sigh, See, and Start

Here’s one approach to your child’s case of the Sunday Scaries: A strategy I designed called the Sigh, See, and Start method.

Sigh. 

It’s something we do under pressure anyway. When we sigh, the deep breath in and the slow breath out directly calm our nervous system. If we sigh deliberately, it’s a chance to connect with our bodies and our emotions.

See. 

Really try to see what that dread is trying to tell you. Imagine it’s a part of yourself trying to tell you something and see what it is trying to say.

The See step is mindfulness. It means we don’t wallow in the dread, instead we approach it with objectivity like: “Hey, Dread you’re trying to tell me something about this week, I’ll listen to you and then I’m going to think it through and see if I agree with your perspective here.”

What might your child discover when they ask Dread what it’s trying to tell them? Perhaps it’s a social interaction that’s not going well. Perhaps it’s an upcoming math test. But if your child can’t verbalize what they dread, then the issue may be purely feeling overwhelmed.

School can be overwhelming in the best of times: kids have to keep track of assignments, stay on task despite distractions and even when the task is boring, and manage their social interactions. And for many kids school is simply overstimulating. There is too much going on and too much sensory input. Adding the additional rules that COVID has made necessary only increases that overstimulation.

Now that you and your child have Seen what’s going on, it’s time to Start.

Start.

First, Start thinking about solutions. Second, Start making a change on the weekends so your child feels more fulfilled and recharged before the school week. Third, start morning check-ins with your child and do whatever they think will help them prep for school. (Note: introverted kids may have a treasured morning routine and want to be left alone during that time.) Start making a plan for weekend reevaluations so you can plan to keep trying different things until you find what works.

Most importantly, by acknowledging the reality of the Sunday Scaries with your child and normalizing their feelings, you’ve already gone a long way in helping them feel less alone.

Get your copy of Dr. Escalante’s Ultimate Parenting Checklist! Originally published at PsychologyToday.com.

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Author: Alison Escalante MD

Alison Escalante MD is a Pediatrician, TEDx Speaker, Writer and Mother on a mission to help parents caught in the culture of criticism.

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