Helping Kids with Back to School Anxiety

 

After last spring’s turbulent ending to the school year, and a similarly unpredictable summer, it is now time to gear up for the start of another academic year. In keeping with the theme of 2020, things are not going to be the same—for students, teacher or parents. Some kids are dubiously starting a new phase of “e-learning”, others are returning to the classroom and still others are doing a hybrid of both. Parents are caregivers must adjust their own schedules to accommodate these changes—all of which combine to add an extra layer to an already anxiety-provoking time of year. The first step is recognizing whether your child might be experiencing these worries. 

 
Common signs of school-related anxiety in children include: 
  • repeatedly asking for reassurance about the same questions, even if they have already been answered. For instance, “what if my friends decide they don’t like me?” or “what if the teacher is mean?” 
  • complaints of physical symptoms when no illness is present, such as stomachaches and headaches
  • changes in sleeping and eating habits 
  • avoidance or reluctance to engage in discussions related to school 

While anxiety and stress are inevitable, they don’t need to cause suffering. Read on to learn the ABCs of helping everyone in your household navigate this transition.

  • Anticipate and acknowledge anxieties: instead of waiting for anxieties to bubble up the night before the first day of school, get ahead of the game by predicting potential challenges in advance. For instance, children who experience separation anxiety or have difficulty adjusting to changes in routine can be expected to find the transition to a new year more stressful. Avoiding discussion about these topics may feel like you are protecting your child from undue stress, but chances are that he or she is already thinking about them on some level. Facilitating a conversation will a neutral question such as “do you know who will be in your class this year?” will help children process and familiarize themselves to the anxieties of these uncertain situations.
  • Bprepared practiced. So far, 2020 has cautioned us against developing a false sense of security by telling ourselves that we are “prepared”. So, instead of issuing that challenge to the universe, focus instead on the more accurate actions of being “practiced”, “planned” or “purposeful”. The idea here is to do a “dry run” of the school day routine in advance, whether that means walking/driving to school, waking up early to log on to the computer or role-playing conversations. Ask your child what parts of the day he or she is most nervous about and go from there.  
  • Choose consistency. The transition from summer to a more structured schedule can cause anxiety in itself. You can help your child by shifting into the new schedule a week or so in advance of school to help them become acclimated to the change. This is also a good time to teach children how to develop their own routine by setting aside time each night for reading, journaling and getting prepared for the following day. 
While back to school anxieties are common, it should not consistently interfere with your child’s day to day life or cause excessive distress. If your child seems to be struggling despite your support, consider seeking out the help of a guidance counselors or making an appointment with a mental health professional to further ensure a successful start to the school year.
 

– Carolyn Moriarty, LPC