How Can We Help With Back-to-School Anxiety?

Author Tracy Smith
September 2, 2020

This year’s return to school will undoubtedly be like no other. Early fall is always filled with a combination of excitement and trepidation as children begin a new year. For some children who struggle with academics or social situations, it may be the time of year they dread most.

back to school anxiety

This year in particular is complicated and fraught with challenges as a result of the pandemic and the ever-changing conditions it brings.

If you or your children are feeling nervous about the return of school, you’re not alone. Here are some ideas to help with this year’s back-to-school anxiety.

Remember: Some Anxiety Is Normal

It can help to first understand that there’s always some anxiety that comes with an unknown situation. Feeling nervous means that something is important to you, and you’re not a robot functioning in a human world. Accepting that some level of anxiety is normal is a great start.

How this works in the real world may look quite different depending on your child’s age. For younger children, you may simply validate that there’s a lot going on, and it’s okay to feel whatever they’re feeling. Help them practice ways to express themselves and cope with strong emotions.

For older children and teens, you might let them know that you get anxious too, and it’s a perfectly normal way to feel. Share the last time you experienced something that you were uncertain about, and how it turned out.

Prepare What You Can

Next, help yourself and your kids take control of the things you can influence. This is an old adage but holds true. In an ordinary situation, things we can control might be preparing school supplies, learning about your schedule or new building, or reviewing the materials to be covered for the year. These are all still helpful.

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In the time of COVID-19, it may seem that everything is in chaos, but there are still things you can control. Preparing masks, understanding the school’s plans, or practicing with online platforms can all be helpful. If you or your child will be doing some or all schoolwork from home, then preparing a space and plan for that process can be helpful.

Expect the Unknown

Once you have taken care of everything that is in your power to plan, then comes the hard part—accepting there will be many unknowns. This is true of any year, but especially true during a pandemic. The truth is that most school administrators and teachers don’t know what to expect this year, and are struggling themselves. As policies, rules, and expectations change, they may themselves seem anxious and stressed. As uncomfortable as this may be, it’s normal given the circumstances. Try to give them the benefit of the doubt as everyone works out the quirks together.

As you adjust to the unknown, also try to face your fears. Sometimes avoiding the worst-case scenario can give your fears power. Ask yourself or your child what your worst nightmare about school would be, and face the fear, talking about it out loud. Often, it’s either not as bad as you think or at least you’ll realize there’s nothing you can do about it. And sometimes, there may be a solution you hadn’t thought of. Bringing these worries into the light, rather than keeping them to yourself, can help alleviate them.

Recognize School Is Complicated

Pandemic aside, kids worry about school for different reasons. Often older children who struggle socially are afraid to tell parents how bad it really is. (And younger children may not have the words to explain it.) They worry that they’ll be seen as a disappointment or are ashamed to admit they have issues with peers. Often kids, particularly in middle school and early high school, face societal pressure when it comes to appearance, dating, or social media status.

Children who are more focused on academics than popularity can struggle just as much. Their pressures may be to achieve high grades and remain the top of the class. In the past, success may not have been challenging to attain, but can now suddenly feel uncertain and overwhelming.

It’s important to realize that children and teens face many of the same life stressors adults have, and then some. However, they have less life experience and context to deal with them. They often think they’re alone or that no one would understand what they’re going through.

Keeping the lines of communication open with your child is important since talking about these issues can be helpful. If your child or teen is not one to open up easily to adults, which is somewhat normal (especially for middle school and beyond), try a different approach. Rather than pressuring them for information, tell them about some of your own experiences in school. Share personal stories, even embarrassing ones, and the areas you struggled with. Even if your child says you don’t get it, at least they’ll know that you’re trying to understand his or her experience. Don’t state that you know what they’re going through; rather share your stories as you would with a friend.

Create a Coping Plan or Kit

If you or your child are still feeling highly anxious and overwhelmed, consider making a coping plan. This might be a formal or informal guide that can remind kids to use self-calming techniques in times of stress. It might include a list of things they already like to do, such as drawing, listening to music, or playing games. Or it might include a new set of skills, such as taking deep breaths, meditating, or journaling. This could also take the form of a stress kit, such as a box or bag your child can keep in a bookbag, with ideas and tools to use when they’re feeling stressed.

Keep Sharing

Often adults neglect to explain what they perceive to be the basics to kids. Older children might ask questions, but younger kids don’t always know how or what to ask. Walk them through how school will go, what will happen, and how some things may change as the weeks and months progress. Having some context for what’s going on can make things easier.

Take Care of Basic Needs

It’s surprising how often little things, such as getting the right kind of breakfast, can make a big difference. Make sure your child is getting healthy food, sleep, exercise, and breaks from screens. These basic areas of self-care can make emotions easier to regulate and can help decrease anxiety.

Returning to school can be an exciting time for many children. It can also bring much anxiety or worry for both kids and adults. This year is likely to bring even more confusion and uncertainty. Like with any new situation, a balance of preparation and acceptance can make things a little bit easier.

Author Tracy Smith

Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for a Community YMCA. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents.

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