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New Year, New Stress: Easing Back-to-School Anxiety

If your child is feeling anxious, here are some tips for how to soothe their school-related nerves.

As big yellow buses return to rumble through sleepy neighborhoods, the message is clear: a new school year is beginning! There’s plenty of excitement ahead, but for some students, back to school can be tough. It’s the start of a new school year, a different classroom, harder subjects, or new sports teams. With so many things changing and so many expectations — even whether mom bought the right backpack or shoes — this time of year can trigger back-to-school anxiety in lots of kids.

Having gone through our own life changes, adults know transition is a natural part of life. Margot Burke, a licensed psychologist and the owner and director of Milestones Psychology and Wellness in Ardmore says, “kids need help understanding that their feelings are a normal part of this. They would benefit from knowing most people have similar feelings during times of change.” She says parents and teachers should explain to children that they may have more than one feeling about ending and beginning something. Children may be feeling both excitement for the new school year, as well as back-to-school anxiety — and that’s completely normal.

Making Sense of the Mix: Back-to-School Anxiety + Excitement

Back-to-school is a great time to foster kids’ emotional development. Burke said children often are sad to leave their teachers and friends, happy about summer vacation, and nervous about the start of the school year — all at the same time. Talking to kids about having more than one feeling at a time, even opposite ones, is helpful.

To reduce stress, improve school adjustment, and help your child handle the myriad emotions that come with the end of summer, Valerie Braunstein, Psy.D., founder and CEO of Philly Psychology, suggests taking the following steps before school begins:

  • Reestablish bedtime and mealtime routines.
  • Arrange get-togethers with classmates to maintain social connections.
  • Make a list of resources within the school with whom your child can turn to for support, assistance, or instruction.
  • Inform your children of changes before they happen.

Strategies for Success

According to Margot Burke, it’s important to help children know what to expect during times of transition because it helps them feel safe and secure when things around them are unpredictable. Parents can do this using pictures, visual schedules, and calendar countdowns.

“Developing rituals and reflection around transitions can help develop predictability over the long term and show children that change can be positive,” Burke said.

“Develop rituals that are fun and celebrate the end of something such as special meals, activities, or a fun event with the whole family,” she said. “Take time to reflect with children how much they have grown over the school year and point out a time when something was hard for them, and now are easier.”

Valerie Braunstein offered another strategy: encourage kids to feel good about themselves and the situations they are dealing with. Remind them of times when they have done well. “After a child experiences instances of good coping, parents can highlight these — for example with photos and awards — so that the child is more likely to remember them and build confidence,” she said.

For instance, you can remind your child of all the times they handled a stressful situation well, such as a school presentation she was nervous about. Or note how your child found a way to get through a football practice when he broke his thumb, which helps build confidence.

When to Get Help for Back-to-School Anxiety

But even with the best preparation, your child may still experience a difficult first few weeks of school. These are some signs that the transition might be especially hard and that your child may need additional assistance:

  • feelings of sadness that last at least two weeks
  • intense mood swings that cause problems in relationships
  • worries or fears that interfere with daily activities
  • dangerous behavior or self-injury
  • expressing a desire to hurt others or themselves
  • difficulty concentrating
  • unexplained weight loss or weight gain
  • physical symptoms without obvious cause (e.g., headaches, stomachaches)
  • avoiding friends or social activities
  • frequent nightmares
  • changes in school performance
  • substance abuse

If you notice any of these symptoms or anything that strikes you as “not right,” talk to your pediatrician or a psychologist, Braunstein said. New situations can be stressful for everyone, but with your help and guidance, your child has a great chance to succeed.

Lead photograph via Canva. Edited by Beth Gilbert-Crowell.