Dealing with back-to-school anxiety

August 25, 2011
First Day of School by Ken Wilcox

First Day of School ~ Photo by Ken Wilcox

Is your child anxious about starting school?  Are you?

Here are some tips to get through the annual child-parent rite of fall from Kate Kelly, a therapist who specializes in treating childhood anxiety and runs courses that help girls learn coping skills for anxiety and stress,  Kelly, a longtime resident of San Francisco, now lives in Washington D.C.

1) Are you anxious too?

It’s just like being on a plane, where you’re told to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others; as much as it may go against our parental instincts to help ourselves first, when it comes to anxiety (and airplane emergencies!) our children are better off when we do.

It’s normal, of course, for all of us to feel a bit anxious, even wistful, as the more relaxed days of summer begin to give way to the busier days of fall. But since anxious kids will pick up if we’re feeling anxious or worried, take a moment to tune in to whatever you may be feeling: pause, take a few soft belly breaths—sometimes that’s enough to bring us back to the present. Remember—anxiety is all about worrying about the future. If you’re feeling anxious, take the time to do whatever helps you reduce your stress and awaken your joy:  yoga, meditation, swimming, running, or spending time with a good friend.

Reducing your stress is great modeling for your anxious child—and also increases the chances that less of your anxiety will be in the mix when you try to help your child with his/her anxious feelings.

2) Invite your child to talk.

Invite conversation with your child about what s/he might be feeling about the new schedule, new school, and new expectations. The best time is when you’re both relaxed—perhaps after playing a board game, or after taking a bike ride together. Depending on the age of the child, “side-by-side” conversations—while riding in the car, or browsing store aisles for school supplies—can also be great times to chat. To take the pulse on anxious feelings, keep the tone relaxed and inviting—perhaps starting in an open-ended way: “I know our schedule is about to change, since we’ll be starting school in a few weeks. I’m curious what you’re thinking about that?” If you find this elicits no response—which often happens with kids!—you can try a more direct approach: “What two things are you most excited about at your new school? What two things maybe give you a few butterflies in your stomach?”

3) It’s normal to feel nervous (to a point).

If your child expresses anxious feelings, validate the feelings—while at the same time expressing confidence in his/her capacities to meet new challenges.  Sometimes we parents skip over the validating-the-feelings part of the equation and head straight into reassuring our kids—because we so hate to see them anxious (and, truth be told, because it makes us feel anxious to see our kids anxious.)  But reassurance can feel hollow and not helpful to an anxious kid if we don’t first give the worried and scared feelings their due. Tell your child that it’s normal to feel a bit anxious when we begin something new—perhaps sharing a time when you felt anxious, and what you did to help yourself. (Kids love*to hear stories about challenges their parents have faced, and overcome.) After you’ve validated your child’s feelings, convey your confidence in his/her capacities to meet the new situation.  Talk about some of the cool stuff, such as the great playground, new friends, huge library—whatever makes the new school or schedule appealing.

4) Make a plan.

Anxious kids like to have a plan and a structure.  Find out whatever you can about your child’s new schedule and share that with him/her. If your child is worried about the first day of school, see if the two of you can visit the school ahead of time so s/he has some familiarity with the setting and building. Try to find a trusted adult at the school who can be an anchor in those first few weeks for your anxious child.

If you get a class list before school starts, arrange a play date with a child in the class before school starts; first-day jitters are less jittery if there’s a familiar face in class. Anxious middle schoolers using a locker for the first time will be less nervous if you teach them how to use a combination lock before the first day of school.

Rowan's first day at school ~ Photo by Jo Peattie

5) Eat right, sleep well.

Anxious kids can feel soothed by routine.  Prepare kids for a new routine by organizing your house in a back-to-school way—perhaps chatting with your child about setting up a special homework area. To help the transition back to a school schedule, start the back-to-school routine a week or two before school starts if you can. And while you’re at it, make sure your back-to-school routine includes plenty of sleep and healthy foods—which can sometimes be in short supply in the summer. Remember that what we eat and how we sleep affect our mood—and our anxiety levels—so choosing healthy food and getting enough sleep are really important.

6) And, finally, if anxiety persists…

Most back-to-school and/or new-school anxiety will shift as kids settle into a routine in the first weeks of school. But if symptoms persist for several weeks, seek help from a counselor who has experience working with anxiety. Symptoms may be reported to parents as physical complaints—headaches, tummy aches, sore throats in younger kids, and nausea, headaches, muscle aches in older kids—that seem to disappear rapidly once the child stays home from school. You should also watch for difficulty sleeping; increased irritability and agitation; clinginess; temper tantrums,  or refusing to go to school.

Here’s the very good news: anxiety is very treatable, so no child or parent should ever suffer unnecessarily. Seek help if you need to; and, with luck, these tips may reduce or even eliminate the anxiety that comes with a new school year.

If you have follow-up questions, contact Kate Kelly at A version of this post first appeared in the Washington Post.

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