Ease Your Child’s Back-to-School Anxiety

By FCPS & Healthy Minds
Healthy Minds
August 14, 2018

While the transition from summer to school can be exciting, it’s common for children of all ages to experience some anxiety about starting a new school year. After the freedom of summer, it’s a big change to switch back to the structure and routines of a school day. Many children experience increased shyness or clinging behavior, and worry about making friends, being away from parents, schedules, and completing schoolwork.

Back-to school anxiety will typically fade with time. However, if symptoms seem to be getting worse or result in tantrums; repeated complaints of headaches or stomach aches; difficulty eating or sleeping; change in getting along with family and friends; avoidance of independent activities; or a refusal to go to school, it’s time to seek help. Consider contacting the school counselor, school psychologist, or school social worker available at your child’s school. They can answer questions, provide resources, and work with you and your child to make school a more comfortable, enjoyable place to learn.

Below are some tips to help ease back-to-school anxiety. The goal for parents is to be supportive without aggravating your child’s worries.

  • Start preparing for the coming school year ahead of time. Get your child back into school year routines such as bedtimes, eating schedules, and even picking out clothes for the next day. Have everything in order in advance such as school supplies, a family calendar, and a plan for completing homework or studying.
  • Keep you own anxiety in check and show confidence. Children pick up cues from their parents and will follow your lead.
  • Look to create a positive expectation for the school year. Talk about things your child can look forward to in school (e.g., “What are three things you most look forward to on the first day of school?”), as well as the past experiences they’ve enjoyed. Our worries often blind us from the good aspects of things, so the fun things about school might be overlooked.
  • Seriously listen to your child’s worries. Rather than quickly dismissing fears (e.g., “Oh, you will be just fine.”), actively listening to and acknowledging your child’s feelings (e.g., “I know that’s hard.”) will help him or her feel more secure.
  • Get specific in learning why your child is anxious. Have your child clearly explain it to you (e.g., “I see you’re worried about going back to school. Tell me what you’re worried about so we can talk about it.”). You may learn something you didn’t know. With this information, encourage your child to problem-solve the situation (e.g., “Let’s think of some ways you could handle that situation.”). This will give you an opportunity to coach your child on how to cope with an anxiety-producing situation now and unexpected situations in the future.
  • Talk with your child about previous triumphs. Most children have experienced an anxiety-producing situation before, so reminding them of their own successes with similar situations is helpful. This tells them that they have the tools to handle and move past this challenge too.
  • Do some test runs. Visit the school ahead of time to walk the halls, check out classrooms, and briefly visit with school staff. Practice your drop off and after-school routines. Opportunities for exposure and repetition for mastery help to reduce anxiety. Be sure to attend any orientation or open house that the school offers.
  • Help re-establish social connections for your children. Children often have many worries around friends such as who will be in class with them, sit with them at lunch, or ride the bus with them. Helping them reconnect with friends through a play-date or just communicating about their schedule can help set them at ease.
  • Reach out to the teachers or school counselor. It benefits educators when they know what is occurring with their students. It allows them to intervene in efforts to help. In addition, it may help lessen students’ anxiety when they know there are supportive adults aware of their situation and ready to help as needed.
  • Be clear that staying home from school will never be an acceptable solution. Avoidance of school will only serve to increase and reinforce your child’s anxiety over the long-term in making it increasingly more difficult to attend.
  • Be patient. It can take time to adjust to a new situation, as each day can bring new challenges. This is especially true for older students who are navigating new classes, new teachers, changing schedules, and perhaps a new after-school activity.
  • Find time to allow your children to take a break after school. A relaxing activity or some light conversation can be great for the whole family.

Healthy Minds is for parents, educators, and community-based providers who are interested in supporting student mental health and wellness. It represents a collaboration between FCPS’ Office of Intervention and Prevention Services and the Fairfax County Government. SUBSCRIBE to Healthy Minds and receive a monthly digest of our most recent articles.