Anxious about the back-to-school season? There are the endless school supplies lists, the daily lunch-making, the teary bus rides, the calamitous Changes To Routine to dread. And that's just for parents. Heading back to school can give many children anxiety — especially if it's their first time — but the good news is it’s entirely normal to have some jitters, say experts, and there are ways you can help your child navigate their worries.
Making new friends, meeting new teachers, and taking on the new responsibilities of the school year can cause some kids to worry, says Dr. Karen Stewart, board-certified adult and child adolescent psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente in Georgia. Starting school again means kids will face pressures of succeeding in academics and that pressure can come from many facets: parents, teachers, and their peers. They have to meet deadlines and take on multiple projects and that can be a huge source of anxiety.
The stakes can be higher when a child has to transition to a new school, whether because of a location change, moving up a grade, or starting kindergarten. The stress levels of going back to school can be very similar to when adults start a new job.
“General signs of anxiety in children can present as appetite and/or sleep changes, regression in behaviors, and withdrawal,” Dr. Stewart explains to Romper via email, “Although there are some common signs of anxiety, children of different ages can have different symptoms.”
For example, kids in elementary school can start getting frequent tummy aches or say they don’t feel well. They might request staying home or find other ways to avoid going to school, like purposefully missing the bus. Younger kids may cry easily, or throw tantrums — expressions of frustration and worries they have difficulty putting into words. There may be new behaviors that develop that weren’t there before.
Older kids might skip classes, start doing poorly in school, and in some instances, turn to drugs and alcohol to cope.
Jill Hauge’s son’s anxiety started when he was 9, having “episodes” in the evening or middle of the night where he wasn’t able to fall asleep or stay asleep. “He would come in to our room and we could hear him coming because he would be breathing really hard and fast and let us know that he couldn't sleep,” she explains to Romper in a Facebook conversation. “This would escalate into his whole body shaking, he would hyperventilate, and his stomach would be upset.”
After a few years of therapy and medications, her son was able to utilize coping skills, but she reports it was one of the worst things she had to deal with as a parent. “We felt so helpless and just sort of had to sit and watch the whole thing happen and be as supportive as we could.” It was unclear to Jill if her son was having anxiety related to school, because he wasn’t able to verbally express it —something people with anxiety know all too well.
Parental stress can be picked up by your child, so stay calm.
As a parent, we do everything in our power to help our children when they’re struggling. If your child, or children are having a hard time facing the start of the school year, there are some tips that can help make the transition a little easier.
For starters, Dr. Stewart cautions parents to be mindful of their own emotions. “Parental stress can be picked up by your child, so stay calm,” she says, “Watch what you say, and show confidence.”
Ramsey Hootman has an 8-year-old son with special needs and had very little advcance notice on her son's class lists, making it difficult to prepare him for the first day back. “Is it going to be another year of instructor apathy and broken promises? Or will it be exciting and full of learning?" writes Hootman in a Facebook message with Romper. "As for me, will I spend my year fighting for him, or will I have a partner in his education?”
It’s important to get to the root cause of the anxiety. For many kids, it’s all about the social aspect — who to sit with on the bus or at lunch; worries about fitting in.
For others it’s more academic. “My very smart fourth grader is already worried about the writing part of the standardized testing they have at the end of the school year,” Emily Hubbard explains to Romper in a Facebook post.
It’s important to be aware of kids’ worries and know how to respond. Make sure your child knows it’s normal to be nervous.
School-related stress is a big deal, according to Dr. Stewart. “Parents and caretakers play a critical role in helping children understand, manage, and overcome these worries. It’s important to be aware of kids’ worries and know how to respond. Make sure your child knows it’s normal to be nervous.”
“I want to do art. Like, learn how to draw school buses. Should I already know how to do that? Because I can’t,” 5-year old Harper asks her mother, Lisa Sickle. Harper's twin can’t wait to start kindergarten, but Harper has reservations. At their school’s "Meet the Teacher" evening, the shy 5-year-old cried.
“It was overwhelming. She has this fear that she doesn't know everything yet,” Lisa explains in a Facebook message, “I don't think she gets it that she goes to school to learn everything — not to know it already.”
Starting about a week or so before school starts, make sure your kids are getting back to their school-year bedtimes and wake ups.
When it comes to prepping for that first day, routine is a must. Starting about a week or so before school starts, make sure your kids are getting back to their school-year bedtimes and wake ups, at least close to it, and have things like lunches and clothes prepped and set out the night before. Even as adults, we understand the comfort of a routine.
It’s important to also understand when the anxiety is too much for you to take on as the parent and seek out additional support if needed. Talking to your child’s pediatrician or the school counselor can help you get some additional ideas on coping skills.
“I want to remind children that it’s perfectly normal to have jitters before going back to school. It can be tough going from a fun-filled summer back to responsibility,” Dr. Stewart says.
“It’s important to balance school and fun. Making sure you have things to look forward to can really help decrease stress. Remember that there are positive things about returning to school like seeing old friends and making new ones as well as learning new and exciting things.”