Back to school can be an exciting time of year, buzzing with fresh haircuts and new school supplies. But the buildup to September can also be stressful; anxious feelings are normal for young people as August slips away. Worries may be amplified for those in a “transition year” such as starting kindergarten, changing schools, or entering high school.
Recognizing back-to-school anxiety
Kids aren’t always able to express their emotions, so the fact that they’re feeling anxious may not always be clear. In the days or weeks leading up to school, anxiety in your child may show up as
- clinginess or reluctance to separate from parents
- physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches
- loss of appetite or trouble sleeping
- irritability or moodiness
- crying or emotional outbursts (this can be a way for kids to release pent-up emotions)
Frequent fears from K to 12
Kids at this age often worry about changes to their daily routines and surroundings.
Separating from parents
What if something bad happens to Mom or Dad? What if nobody is there to pick me up?
Going to the bathroom alone
What if I can’t find my way back to my classroom? What if the toilet overflows?
Kids at this age may worry about aspects of keeping up and fitting in.
Navigating the middle school system
What if I can’t get my locker open? What if I’m late for class?
Finding a friend group
What if the other kids make fun of me? What if my friends aren’t in my classes?
Kids at this age are straddling the social stressors of adolescence with the responsibilities of young adulthood, and often have worries to match.
Managing peer pressure
What if my friends do things I don’t feel comfortable doing?
Planning for the future
How will I keep up with my grades? What will I do after graduation?
Kids who struggle with anxiety typically overestimate the probability of bad things happening and underestimate their ability to cope. However, according to Tania Johnson, a registered psychologist and co-founder of the Institute of Child Psychology, when kids are given opportunities to successfully overcome their worries, they build new neural connections in their brains and their resiliency blossoms.
Here are some ways to help kids find success.
Ask (and really listen)
During moments of worry or fear, kids need a calm and compassionate presence, without being “talked out of” their feelings.
Tip: Teens may find it easier to share their emotions while doing something together (like driving in the car). Younger kids can’t always articulate what’s worrying them, so using picture books can help increase their emotional vocabulary (for example, discuss what the characters might be thinking or feeling).
It’s normal for kids to want to evade the things that scare them. However, when kids face their fears, they gain confidence and flexibility.
Tip: Break down fears into small, manageable steps. Start with situations that are less scary (for example, a kindergartener worried about going to the bathroom at school could start by going with a parent before the first bell). Eventually, work your way up to harder situations (such as going to the bathroom alone).
Focus on belonging
To make school a safe place, Johnson stresses the importance of helping kids feeling connected to their environment.
Tip: Start before the first day. Visit the school’s playground a few times or contact administration to arrange a school tour or a meet-and-greet with your child’s teacher.
Let your calm be contagious
Kids are like sponges and pick up on fluctuations in their parents’ moods, behaviors, and body language.
Tip: Check in and be honest with yourself about how you’re feeling. Do you have apprehensions about the upcoming school year? Are you putting pressure on your child to achieve? Gently acknowledge and take care of your own anxiety to help you be there for your child.
Johnson notes that positive changes are more long-term when parents work with their child’s village. Talk to your child’s teachers and school counsellors to brainstorm ways to support your child.
Tip: For most kids, anxiety will fade as the school year progresses. However, if your child’s anxiety is causing them great distress, it can help to reach out to a mental health professional who has experience working with kids and anxiety.
Back to basics
In the weeks leading up to school, Johnson stresses the importance of calming kids’—and parents’—nervous systems. To do so, she encourages families to focus on the “fundamental building blocks of wellness,” including the following.
Calm over chaos
Although it can be tempting to squeeze every last activity out of August, Johnson says it’s more important to simplify and slow things down.
Involve kids in making a back-to-school grocery list, including plenty of colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy proteins and fats.
Dehydration can impair attention, memory, and problem-solving in kids, so keep that water bottle handy.
Gradually return to normal bed and wakeup times, moving in 15-minute increments until you reach your goal.
For younger kids, this could be rough-and-tumble play; for older kids, it could be getting outside for a family bike ride.
Nicole Davies, a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, recommends these herbs to promote positive mood in young people.
Passionflower to ease anxiety and improve attention span and focus.
Lemon balm to reduce stress and anxiety and improve mood and cognitive function.
Chamomile to help decrease cortisol levels, promote sleep, and alleviate anxiety.
Square breathing is a fun and easy way to teach kids about deep breathing. (It works for adults, too!)
Together with your child, draw a square in the air with your fingertip. Starting at the bottom left corner, slowly outline the square to the following steps (each line of the square represents one step).
- Breathe in for a count of 4.
- Hold for a count of 4.
- Breathe out for a count of 4.
- Pause for a count of 4.
Tip: Introduce and practice square breathing when your child is already feeling calm. Then, like muscle memory, it becomes easier to access during times of stress.
Responding to kids’ worries
Tip How it helps What to say Validate their emotion. conveys empathy “You feel really worried about school starting …” Give three “because” statements. shows understanding “… because your best friend isn’t in your class, you don’t know your new teacher, and you had a hard time with math last year …” Move into collaborative problem-solving. promotes confidence “… but I know we can get through this together. What did we try last year that helped?”
Happiness comes from learning, not achieving
A recent study revealed that kids who believed their parents emphasized getting good grades over other values—such as kindness toward others—were at higher risk of anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.
Interestingly, they were also more likely to have lower grades. Instead of focusing on kids’ report cards, encourage their unique interests, curiosities, and the things that bring them joy.