Going back to school can bring excitement for some kids, and for others, some anticipation and worry. Young children can get nervous about leaving their parents, especially when starting at a new school. Older children may feel anxious about academics or how they'll fit in with their friends.
Nicholas J. Westers, Psy.D., ABPP, a clinical psychologist at Children's Health℠ and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern, shares advice about identifying anxiety in children and ways parents can help.
Why do children get back-to-school anxiety?
Every year, most students have a few nerves about going back to school. This is normal with the change in routine and unknowns of what a new school year will bring. School may also bring unique worries and pressures that cause anxiety, such as:
- The need to fit in socially and make friends
- Fears of bullying or peer pressure
- Academic pressure to make good grades
- Athletic pressure (to make the team or to perform well on the field)
- Life changes, like entering a new school
- Anxiety about security and safety at school
"Some children returning to school may feel anxious because of hearing about tragic events such as school shootings," says Dr. Westers. "If you sense your child is anxious about this, check in with them and listen to their concerns. It's important to reinforce that they can always come to you when they need support."
Anxiety about going back to school during COVID‑19
While COVID‑19 is no longer a "new" illness, highly contagious variants continue to cause its spread. Students may worry for their health or a loved one's. They may also worry about potential interruptions to their school year or extracurricular activities. The stress of the past few years may continue to affect students as well. It's important to validate any concerns your child has by checking in with them frequently.
Encouraging children to focus on what they can control is a good way to manage anxiety, too. For fears about COVID‑19, this could mean getting vaccinated and a booster shot if eligible, hand washing and wearing a face mask, especially when cases are high. See more advice for COVID‑19 and staying healthy in school.
What are signs your child is feeling anxious about school?
Children show anxiety in different ways. If you're concerned your child is feeling anxious about school, be on the lookout for changes in your child's behavior and mood.
Signs of anxiety can include:
- Disturbances in sleep
- Increased defiance or irritability
- Lack of concentration
- Less energy
- Loss of appetite
- Physical symptoms like nausea, stomach aches, muscle tension or dizziness
- Refusal to go to school
- Sadness or crying
"All children are different, and you know your child better than anyone," says Dr. Westers. "You may be able to identify changes in your child's behavior and pick up on the anxiety they may be feeling."
7 tips to help manage your child's back-to-school anxiety
How you support your child as they return to school may depend on how they feel and their age. Younger children are more likely to have separation anxiety and need reassurance about being away from you. Older children may feel more anticipation about social or academic pressures.
Here are seven ways you can help:
- Ask questions/Be supportive – Validate concerns your child may have by asking open-ended questions. To start the conversation, parents might state, "I sense you're feeling worried, and that's an okay feeling to have. What is it that you're most worried about right now?" Pay attention to your child's feelings and listen to their concerns.
- Help your child feel prepared – Explain to your child what you know about what the school year or classroom will look like to help them mentally prepare. If possible, visit the school with your child ahead of the first day of classes or allow your child to meet their teacher.
- Set an example – Stay calm when your child becomes anxious about a situation. Children watch parents to learn how to cope with adversity, communicate with difficult people, problem-solve and manage interpersonal conflict. Show children how to behave and how to feel about themselves, even in the midst of anxiety. Rather than making a general statement like "The world is a scary place," parents might say, "I sometimes get worried, too. When I feel this way, I [insert healthy coping strategy here, e.g., take deep breaths, think about how much I love you and our family]."
- Establish routines – In a world where so many things are unpredictable and anxiety-provoking, being consistent with bedtime, mealtime, playtime, screen time and expressions of love can create a sense of stability and predictability. Ensure your child is getting enough sleep, being physically active and eating healthy food. These habits can support a healthy body and a healthy mind.
- Coach your child through relaxation exercises – Have your child try deep breathing when they feel anxious — teach them to take a deep breath, count to eight and release. You can also teach them to picture a peaceful place where they felt calm, such as a favorite family vacation spot or a cozy corner of their room. Try a kids' yoga video to help them slow down and relax.
- Show encouragement and celebrate the wins – Consider sending positive or encouraging notes in your child's lunch or backpack. Small actions can show you are there for your child. After the first week of school (or after any special achievement during the school year), plan a fun celebration, such as a favorite dinner, movie night or special activity together.
- Seek mental health support if needed – Although children are resilient, it's important to pay attention to signs of anxiety. If your child is prone to anxiety and continues to have difficulty coping, do not hesitate to seek professional help. See mental health resources for kids and teens.
Anxiety is a normal part of healthy development and can be helpful in some situations. For example, feeling pressure to complete homework by a deadline or to perform well in sports. If anxiety negatively impacts everyday mood and behavior, persists over time, results in avoidance behavior or is not based in reality, it could be an anxiety disorder.
Children and adolescents often base their own assumptions about anxiety and mental health on their parents' assumptions. "An empathic and validating stance from you could be the difference between suffering alone and seeking help if they experience anxiety now or in the future," says Dr. Westers.
Address back to school anxiety by talking to kids about how they’re feeling and acknowledging their concerns about the new school year. Ask questions and be supportive as they head back to school. Learn more tips on addressing anxiety from a psychologist @Childrens.
Watch this video to see Dr. Westers discuss ways to help your child cope with anxiety. Children's Health psychologists and psychiatrists can help children and teens manage feelings of loneliness, depression and anxiety. Learn more about programs we offer to support mental, emotional and behavioral health. Read more back-to-school resources.
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