Students across the country are moving into dorms, finishing summer reading, or getting ready to board the school bus for the first day of school. For many kids, heading back to school is exciting, filled with fresh school supplies, shiny clothes, and giddy chatter among reunited friends. For some kids, prepping for back-to-school can ignite some anticipatory anxiety about the transition.
The typical school day is filled with possible stressors for children like separation from parents, learning new classroom rules and routines, getting to know a new teacher, assimilating into friend groups, adjusting to loud, overstimulating classrooms and auditoriums, and getting used to homework are just a few of many challenges.
It is normal for kids to experience some anxiety building up to the new school year. Parents can begin to notice an increase in worries, exemplified by questions about new classrooms and teachers, concerns about having the right school supplies or navigating hallways, or fears about being late and unprepared.
Children who are caught up in anxious thought cycles are seeking reassurance. As parents, it might feel instinctive to dismiss these worries as excessive and say things like “don’t worry about that, or you’ll be fine,” but rarely does this kind of reassurance help children cope with their anxieties. A more productive strategy could include encouraging your child to work through anxious thoughts by naming their fears, verbalizing possible outcomes, and forming positive counter thoughts to empower them. For fears about teachers, classrooms, or academic pressure, positive counter-thought examples could include:
- My new teacher wants to help me learn, just like my old teacher.
- I can learn the new routine and rules on the first day.
- If I don’t understand something, I can ask a question.
Anxious feelings can help children and teens learn to process the world around them and cope with life’s challenges. However, some kids develop more serious or chronic anxiety, which can prevent them from performing well in school, maintaining social relationships, and developing normal, healthy functioning like consistent daily hygiene, good sleep habits, nutritious eating, and regular exercise.
Some examples of behavior that your child may be experiencing higher-than-normal anxiety around the back-to-school transition include:
- An increase in physiological complaints like stomachaches, headaches, and extreme fatigue (with the rule-out of an actual illness)
- Constantly seeking reassurance or repeating worried questions when they have already been given an answer like “what if I don’t have anyone to sit with at lunch, what if I have no friends, etc.”
- A noticeable change in sleep patterns like taking an excessive amount of time to fall asleep when the child normally falls asleep easily or waking up during the night with worries when the child normally sleeps soundly
- Avoiding school-related activities like open houses, orientations, school tours, teacher meet-and-greets or just outright avoiding school altogether
As kids prepare to head back to school, it’s important to prioritize managing anxiety by establishing plans to help kids learn to cope with symptoms of anxiety.
How To Help With Back-to-School Anxiety
Approach anxiety instead of avoiding it.
It is instinctive to want to let your child avoid anxiety-inducing situations or offer reassurance that his or her worries are unfounded. Unfortunately, these tactics can contribute to a cycle that reinforces anxiety in the long term. Try acknowledging your child’s emotions and help him think of small steps he can take to confront his worries. For example, you could say “It sounds like you are feeling nervous about moving up to a new floor with the big kids. Would you like to go take a look around and see where your classroom and the bathroom are?” Be sure to offer praise and positive affirmation to any brave behaviors, reinforcing approaching his worries.
Focus on healthy habits before the first day of school.
While summer is often full of late bedtimes, water ice, and abnormal schedules, try to establish healthy habits before school begins. For a child who has gotten used to a later bedtime, push up bedtime by twenty minutes or so every few nights until you are back on a school bedtime sleep schedule. It can help to talk your child through how good sleep can help with anxiety and come up with a plan together to establish a healthy sleep schedule.
Make it a point to keep your child hydrated. Dehydration can spark both anxious feelings and exhaustion.
Get back to eating nutritious foods, if your family tends to eat less nutritiously during the summer. Try getting your child involved in healthy eating by asking them to pick a dish they’d like to try to make together and prepare it together or guide them through the process. This is not only good for learning valuable life skills but also turns meals into an exciting project and can be a good source of coping strategy for anxiety symptoms.
Practice school routines.
Before the first day of school, you and your child could do a school day walk-through of the morning routine: waking up, eating breakfast, packing lunch, and heading off to school. School tours or orientation days can be excellent opportunities to practice navigating the environment and tackling any anxiety in a low-stakes situation. After a practice routine, confer with your child about things that went well and things that present a challenge. Support your child in problem-solving around potential challenges. For example, if she worries that she will not be able to see the blackboard, help her think through who she could ask for assistance if that occurs.
Model behavior you’d like them to replicate.
When an anxious child has a tough moment and refuses to get onto the school bus or has a tantrum about leaving mom or dad, it’s normal to feel frustrated, lost, and anxious as the parent. When this occurs, try to model the calm behavior you would like to see in your child during an anxious moment.
- Take slow, deep breaths from your belly.
- Remind yourself that your child’s behavior is due to their anxiety.
- Step away from the situation, if need be, to take a few moments to breathe and engage in a grounding technique, such as identifying five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste.
Develop an anxiety plan.
Regardless of the severity of your child’s anxiety, we recommend having an anxiety plan in place. In an ideal world, this will involve, the parent, child, and the child’s teacher. Once the school year begins, contact your child’s teacher to discuss his anxiety. NOTE: Some children with diagnosed anxiety disorders qualify for classroom accommodations.
Establish things your child can do to reduce anxiety. For example:
- Breath work. For little ones, it can look like deep breaths in and slow breaths out using the imagery of “smell the flower, blow out the candle; smell the soup, cool down the soup” and more. For older kids, it can look like ocean breathing where you breathe in and imagine the wave rolling in, breathe out and imagine the wave rolling out. The 4-4-4 method also works; inhale in for a count of four, hold for a count of four and exhale for a count of four.
- Progressive muscle relaxation. For example, beginning with hands or feet, tense the muscles for a count of five and slowly release. Next, move on to the arms and legs and move up the body, repeating the tense/release pattern.
- Using sensory objects like stress balls to relieve tension. Stress balls can help establish self-awareness, aid in grounding, and can be helpful when using techniques like deep breathing and aid in teaching progressive muscle relaxation.
- Grounding techniques. Little kids can use techniques like identifying five colors they see, four shapes they see, three soft things they see, two people they see, and one book they see. For adolescents, ABC Around The Room is effective. The child looks around the room identifying an object for every letter of the alphabet. Teens can use versions of these including the 5-4-3-2-1 method mentioned above for adults which involves identifying, at that moment, five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.
- Other methods of relieving tension. These can include pulling on a theraband attached to a desk and doing wall pushups in the back of the room.
Avoid over-scheduling your child. Just like anxiety-free kids, anxious kids will feel pressured to join all the activities with their peers. It's good to encourage outside activities and time with friends, but it is crucial to teach your child that part of managing anxiety is caring for yourself, knowing your limits, and setting boundaries. It’s a good rule of thumb to give your child about six weeks before adding additional activities to their schedule. All kids, but especially kids with anxiety, need adjustment time to settle into their new routine and establish coping strategies for their anxious thoughts during the transition.
When To Seek Professional Help For Your Child’s Anxiety
If your child’s worries and fears about heading back to school begin to affect her ability to attend school, willingness to continue attending school, or participation in other normal activities such as playdates or time with friends, their favorite sport, or beloved hobbies, consider having a consult with a mental health professional who has experience with child-anxiety.
Your network is your best friend when searching for the right therapist. Ask your pediatrician or your child’s guidance counselor for referrals or ask your friends and family for recommendations based on personal experience. If you prefer to start from scratch, you can search for a therapist on Psychology Today or use the locator tool provided by the American Psychological Association.