Helping Your Child with Back-to-School Anxiety
by Mitchell Wittenberg, Ph.D., LP
While summer for most children is filled with carefree fun, starting school, returning to school, or beginning a new school in the fall can leave many children and adolescents riddled with anxiety as they prepare to face emotional, social, and educational challenges absent in the summer. “Will my teacher be nice?” “Will I fit in socially?” “Will my new classmates like me?” “Are my clothes OK?” These are only a few of the many questions children and teens might be struggling with as they prepare for a new school year.
Excessive anxieties during periods of transition or change are quite common. We all worry to some degree when we face new and unknown situations. While some children will be able to verbally articulate their fears or preoccupations, many others express their anxiety with clinginess, temper tantrums, irritability, negativity, somatic complaints (e.g., headaches, stomach aches), regressive behavior (e.g., a return to baby talk or thumb-sucking), withdrawal, nightmares, or trouble sleeping. Here are seven tips for parents to help children who are dealing with back to school anxiety.
Although the focus here is on helping children deal with their fears, I want to start by highlighting an important parental need. A child’s start or return to school can be a challenging and emotional time for parents as well as children.
Are you unduly worried about how your child will fare in their new school or grade? Are you wrestling with your own feelings of loss as your child prepares to head off to school for the first time? It is important for parents to monitor their own feelings about their child’s upcoming school transition. Children are extremely perceptive. If a parent harbors underlying anxieties as their child prepares for school, the child will pick up on these feelings. The child’s thought process might then be “If mom or dad is fearful about my going to school, well then there is really something for me to worry about.” Children use their parents as models for how they should feel in any given situation. A relaxed parent often means a relaxed child. So, as a parent, do anything you can to relieve your own back-to-school stress: practice yoga or meditation, get some regular physical exercise, read a parenting book, or talk to a friend about your feelings. The calmer you are, the less stressed your child will be.
While some children will share their worries about school, don’t be afraid to preemptively ask your child directly how he or she feels about their upcoming school transition; give your child many chances to talk about how they are feeling as school approaches. Try to use open-ended questions (e.g., “How are you doing as you get ready to start middle school?”, “I wonder how you’re feeling with school coming up?”), rather than leading questions (e.g., “Are you feeling afraid/worried about going back to school?”).
Listen attentively and supportively, and try not to overreact to what your child tells you, no matter how extreme. Encourage your child to share their feelings so that you can support and normalize their concerns. It is often best to try and have such discussions when you and your child are both calm or when they are a “captive audience”, like when you’re driving alone with them in the car.
Try to understand exactly what your child fears. By learning the specifics of what your child is worried about, you can help them problem-solve approaches for dealing with whatever is making them anxious. You can also provide some examples of times in your own life when you felt similarly, while describing how you dealt effectively with your concerns. Children love hearing parental stories.
Many parents are uncomfortable with their children’s distress, and want to fix things for them as quickly as possible. Try to avoid simple reassurances (e.g., “Don’t worry…”) or using logic to convince your child that their anxiety is unwarranted. Think of this as a learning opportunity for your child and a chance to help them develop “resilience”—the ability to thrive despite challenges, and to adapt well to adversity or significant stress. By helping your child reflect on strategies for dealing with their “worst-case” fears, you are providing them with coping tools useful in a variety of situations, a game-plan for effectively handling their anxiety, and the ability to approach new situations with confidence and security.
Additionally, while there are often negatives about school that the child fears (e.g., not making friends, not fitting in, having a “mean” teacher), you can also try and focus your child on the positives of school—e.g., meeting new people, learning new and exciting things, being able to join fun clubs or participate on school sports teams, having a new playground, etc
Anxiety often arises in the face of what is unfamiliar or new; fears and worries thrive where unknowns live. Thus, students often feel some trepidation as the new school year looms. Making as many unknowns known for your child de-mystifies school, and gives them a sense of control, greatly reducing their anxiety in the process.
Most schools welcome the opportunity for parents and children to visit their new classrooms and meet their teachers as the start of school approaches. Arrange for a visit, if possible, if your child is unsure of what to expect. A simple tour of the school—highlighting such key places as their classroom, bathrooms, drinking fountains, lunchroom, gym, cubbies/lockers, or the school playground can often ease first-day jitters for students.
If your child is markedly anxious, you might wish to inform the teacher or principal in advance of school starting. Educational professionals have significant experience effectively dealing with such issues, and helping children through transition problems.
For children who are walking to school or taking the bus for the first time, it is often helpful to walk or drive them through their route to and from school several times in advance of the first day of school, and reinforce where they will get picked up and dropped off.
For younger, elementary-age children, it can often be helpful for parents to set up summertime play dates for their children with peers who will be in their class or grade. Familiarity with peers breeds comfort, and knowing classmates in advance helps children ease more naturally and comfortably into the school year.
The summer is often a time when schedules and routines are relaxed. It is important to rebuild or reestablish appropriate school sleeping and eating routines at least several weeks before the start of the new academic year. Children should get into the practice of going to bed at more reasonable times, waking at earlier school-day hours, getting themselves washed-up and dressed, and having an unrushed, nutritious breakfast (the most important meal of the day because it helps optimize brain functioning, mood, and an ability to focus and learn).
Helping children learn to use and wake to their own alarm clocks (without their parents acting as their alarms and “snooze button”) frequently reduces a major source of parent-child friction in the morning, as does having a younger child pick and lay out their next-day clothes the night before.
Parents might also wish to establish a routine of making, or having their child make, their lunch the night before each school day; this cuts down on one more stressful “to-do” in the morning that could mean the difference between a child heading off to school stressed, angry, or out-of-sorts or in good spirits.
Mornings for many families are often excessively tense and conflicted. Such a state of affairs compounds the angst already felt by a child with back-to-school anxiety; children who leave home in a relaxed frame of mind are more likely to enter school in a positive way and have a better, more productive school day.
Shopping with the child for school supplies a month or so before school starts can also be helpful in easing a child back into a school frame of mind, as is working with a child or teen before school starts to establish an uncluttered, quiet, and comfortable homework area.
Many children with back-to-school anxieties benefit from having a parent home more often during the first several weeks of school. If possible, it can be helpful for a parent with an anxious child to flex their schedule so that they are more available for their child, especially when they return home from school.
Back-to-school anxiety will diminish for most children as they get into their new school routines and find that the things they worried about don’t come to pass. New routines will become, well, routine. Your parental support, ongoing encouragement, and praise for demonstrating behavior that helps your child confront their fears and move through them is often all that is necessary for your child to adjust confidently. Remember to be consistent, calm, and optimistic; most difficulties pass naturally with simple empathetic support and understanding. However, if your child’s problems persist or escalate, you may wish to talk with your child’s teacher, the school principal, or the school psychologist/social worker; they can offer insight and guidance, and support your child as he or she overcomes their struggles.