6 Tips to Ease Back-to-School Anxiety

Anxious feelings triggered by transitions are normal and expected, but with one out of eight children presenting with an anxiety disorder, back-to-school anxiety can be even more problematic for some. 

As a child psychologist, I hear about a wide range of anxious thinking among my patients: What if I don’t have any friends in my class? I heard this grade is tough, what if I don’t do well?  If I don’t do well, I won’t get into a good college and then I won’t get a good job. What if there will be class presentations or the teacher calls on me? What if I have no one to sit with at lunch? I can’t go. I won’t go. 

School anxiety takes many forms. Students can experience increased irritability and sad moods. They can be more argumentative at home or clingy and fearful to separate from parents. Some anxious children experience somatic symptoms, including bellyaches and headaches, and more traditional panic symptoms like shaking, increased heart rate, shortness of breath and dizziness.  Sleep disruptions are also common. 

Even for children who are excited to return to school, there are a number of things that parents can do to help ease the transition.

Below are some ideas that many parents and children – from anxious to eager and all points in between – may find helpful.   

  1. Be prepared and organized. A successful return to school begins well before the first bell rings. Gather school supplies. Talk about your child’s school lunch preferences. Plan outfits. Review school and bus schedules. Also, consider taking advantage of opportunities to help your child become more familiar with the school’s setting. Many schools offer private tours, open houses, and social events before the first day.
  2. Return to a back-to-school sleep schedule. It is recommended that you return to a school-appropriate bedtime schedule two weeks before returning to school. Adolescents in particular may need additional parent prompting so that they develop a healthy sleep schedule. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that the average adolescent in the U.S. is chronically sleep-deprived and pathologically sleepy. Teens certainly have a variety of distractions competing for their attention in the evening hours and they may not fully understand how sleep impacts attention, school performance and emotional well-being. If your child is finding it difficult to fall asleep earlier, try unplugging from electronics. The blue light emitted from electronic devices has been shown to suppress the sleep hormone melatonin and subsequently delay sleeping. Create a consistent bedtime routine which includes calm, soothing activities (bath, reading, music) and avoid talking about emotionally-laden topics before bed.
  3. Validate your child’s emotions. Encourage your child to express their thoughts and emotions. Use reflective statements — paraphrasing and mirroring your child’s speech. This can help you and them understand what they are anxious about. It is important that parents listen empathetically and without judgment. Avoid asking leading questions or providing excessive reassurances.
  4. Engage in problem-solving approaches and prompt healthy coping. Help your child identify and label anxious thoughts. With repeated practice, your child can learn how to challenge and replace anxious thinking with more realistic and helpful thoughts. For example, consider the fact that when anxious, we often overestimate the likelihood that something bad is going to happen. Guide your child through a series of logical questions – e.g., how likely is this to happen, has this happened before, is there a more helpful way of thinking about this?  With younger children, develop a list of calm and brave thoughts. Encourage your child to think of a brave character (like Poppy from Trolls) and how that character might handle tough situations. 
  5. Avoid avoidance. It is natural to want to avoid anxiety-provoking situations. The problem is that when we avoid anxious situations, we contribute to a negative cycle of avoidance and strengthen anxious beliefs. Avoidance makes it increasingly difficult for your child to manage their anxiety in the future. It is important to encourage your child to tolerate anxiousness and face their fears in manageable steps. We know that anxiety can decrease with recurrent exposure to situations, so the school anxiety they feel in October is likely to be less intense than the nervousness they feel in the month of September.
  6. Seek professional guidance. Become familiar with school resources. Guidance counselors and school adjustment counselors offer a variety of support for children.  Talk with your pediatrician or behavioral health clinician if your child is experiencing significant symptoms of anxiety and/or if your child is refusing to attend school. Early identification and intervention for school refusal behaviors is crucial because the longer your child avoids school, the more difficult reentry is. A behavioral health clinician can help you generate a school reentry plan and provide coping skills for your child’s anxiety.

By taking some small steps now, you can make the transition back to school easier on an anxious child. 

Learn more about mental health services for your child through Youth Health Connection.