Whether it’s because summer is ending or school is starting up again, or because your child is going to school for the first time, back to school anxiety is a completely normal thing.
This is especially true for kids going to school this fall, following months of remote learning.
Over a year of remote learning has been draining for children––mentally, emotionally, and developmentally.
Many children have fallen behind on their learning, have missed out on important peer interaction, or may be feeling anxiety at the thought of being apart from family members for an extended period of time for the first time in a while.
Kids may also be worried about going back to large social situations, facing bullies, and feeling like they don’t fit in. Between this and the general uncertainty over how Covid will continue to affect their learning, it’s understandable that kids are nervous to go back.
Read more to find out more about what anxiety in children looks like, how to manage back to school anxiety, tips from K Health’s very own associate lead of pediatrics, Dr. Chelsea Johnson, and when to see a doctor.
What Does Anxiety Look Like in Children?
Dr Johnson says that “anxiety manifests in a surprising variety of ways in part because it is based on a physiological response to a threat in the environment”.
Anxiety in children doesn’t always look the same as anxiety in adults––often, children don’t know how to identify and express their anxiety the way adults do.
Children with anxiety usually exhibit symptoms like:
- Psychosomatic symptoms: Kids may not be able to express or even understand that what they’re feeling is anxiety. Instead, they may say that they have a stomachache or a headache––physical symptoms that come as a result of their anxiety. These symptoms can also include frequent bathroom urges, rapid breathing, chest pains, shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, poor appetite, muscle aches, and tension and sleeping difficulties. Dr. Johnson also tells us that some children have bouts of gagging and choking trouble sleeping.
- Regressive behaviors: Young children may exhibit behaviors such as wetting the bed if they are toilet trained, or excessive clinginess.
- Difficulty concentrating: Anxiety can make it difficult to focus, which can show itself in your child’s class work as well as their social life.
- Fatigue and exhaustion: Dealing with anxiety is tiring! Children with anxiety may be sleepier, even falling asleep at school.
- Hypervigilance: Their fatigue may also be a consequence of hypervigilance––children may be on high alert, constantly monitoring their environment, and keeping tabs on what is going on around them. They may mistake innocuous cues for signs of danger. As Dr. Johnson puts it, “While surveilling the room is a useful talent for spies, for a child, it’s exhausting.
- Anger, irritability, or tantrums: Kids have meltdowns when they feel overwhelmed, but in a child with anxiety, this is more frequent. Children with anxiety often struggle to emotionally regulate.
- Refusing to go to school: School can often cause a lot of anxiety for kids, whether it is because they are being separated from their parents, because they are worried about school work, or because they are experiencing social anxiety. Refusing to go to school is often parents’ and educators’ first sign that a child may have anxiety.
- Being disruptive: You may hear from teachers that your child has been disruptive at school, because demands and expectations put pressure on them that they can’t handle.
Tips for Managing Back to School Anxiety
So, you’ve established that your child is anxious about returning to school––what now?
Dr. Johnson tells us that “the goal isn’t to eliminate anxiety, but to help a child manage it.
The best way to help kids overcome anxiety isn’t to try to remove stressors that trigger it. It’s to help them learn to tolerate their anxiety and function as well as they can, even when they’re anxious.”
There are plenty of ways to manage anxiety out there, but here are some of our favorites, recommended by Dr Johnson.
Confront anxiety, don’t avoid it
Avoiding stressful situations is an understandable response to anxiety, but it can lead to the anxiety being reinforced over time.
Acknowledge what your child is feeling and what could be causing it, and help them find ways to tackle the problem head-on.
Praise them for how they brave their anxieties, and try to support them while they do so. This could involve breaking a problem down into smaller parts, such as taking homework one problem at a time, or preparing for the school day by running through what their day is going to look like if they are nervous about going back.
Mindfulness has been shown to help with anxiety and depression.
Mindfulness involves deep breathing, and focusing your attention on the present rather than what you may be worried about.
It allows kids (and adults) to deal with overwhelming feelings and stress, and is a great way to combat unproductive thoughts and the symptoms of anxiety. Guided meditations can be found across the internet, so you can experiment with what works well for you and your child!
While meditation is one of the most common ways to practice mindfulness, it is far from the only one.
Journaling can be a good way to practice mindfulness; writing about your feelings, or following prompts like the rose, bud, thorn journal. Another way to practice mindfulness is through arts and crafts, or mindful games.
Create a routine
Creating a regular routine removes some of the uncertainty from your child’s day.
Whether that is waking up and packing lunch together, going out to play at a certain time of day, or reading for an hour before bed every night, creating a routine that a child can rely on can help manage back to school anxiety.
In the lead up to school starting, consider easing children into their routines a couple of weeks early. This could involve waking up and going to bed at a regular time every day.
Look for the bright side of going back to school!
This will be different for every child––for some, it may be exciting to go back and start learning again, while others may be looking forward to seeing their friends again.
There are a variety of reasons that going back to school is exciting rather than scary, so talk about them!
Another way to stay positive is to practice positive self-talk. When your child’s anxiety is overwhelming them, tell them to listen to what is causing it––are they worried about homework?
Are they scared of their day going badly? Then, combat this negative thought with a positive one. This could look like your child telling themself that they will do well on their homework, or that they will enjoy school tomorrow.
Dr. Johnson reminds us to be positive, but realistically so: “You can’t promise a child that his fears are unrealistic—that he won’t fail a test, that he’ll have fun ice skating, or that another child won’t laugh at him during show and tell.
But you can express confidence that he’s going to be okay, he will be able to manage it, and that, as he faces his fears, the anxiety level will drop over time. This gives him confidence that your expectations are realistic, and that you’re not going to ask him to do something he can’t handle.”
Staying healthy is one of the most commonly shared pieces of advice for people dealing with anxiety, regardless of their age, and this is for good reason.
Maintaining healthy eating and sleeping habits, drinking plenty of water, getting exercise and making time for fun and play are all great ways to combat anxiety. If your child is worried about Covid as they return to in-person school, remind them that they can wear masks if they are comfortable.
Remember you are not alone
Remind your kids that they are not the only ones who are feeling anxious about going back to school. Other kids are also anxious, and teachers know this––they will be taking that into account as they prepare for the return to school.
Encourage your kids to reach out to friends to talk about how they are feeling; chances are, their friends are feeling the same way.
How to Support Your Child During This Time
The most important thing that you can do is listen to your child, and validate their feelings.
Even if you don’t agree with what they are feeling, or if you think that it is an irrational response, make sure that they know that you are listening to them, that it is okay to feel anxious, and that they can come to you.
Communicate with your kids: ask them, what can Mom or Dad do to help? What are they comfortable doing in this situation? What do they think will make them feel better? Try and work together to alleviate some of the anxiety that comes with coming back to school.
If it helps, try and communicate your child’s fears to their teacher, so that they are also aware of what is going on.
Know that this anxiety may explain some of your kids’ actions. If they are lashing out or having tantrums, if they aren’t sleeping or sleeping at weird times, or if they aren’t as focused as normal, this may be a result of their anxiety.
Pay attention to their behavior, and see if it is a result of their anxiety.
Keep checking in with your child, and ask how you can support them. Keep an eye on if the anxiety is getting better or worse, both through what they say, and through their behavior.
If needed, and if your child is comfortable, then keep your child’s teacher in the loop as well.
If you feel that what you are doing is not enough to help, then consider seeing a pediatrician or a mental health professional for treatment.
When to Talk to a Doctor
If you find that these tips for managing back-to-school anxiety are not enough, and your child’s anxiety is interfering with their day-to-day life (their grades, their interest in school, and their hobbies or extracurricular activities), then consider speaking to a licensed mental health professional, such as a psychologist or a psychiatrist.
Seeking treatment for your child’s anxiety will help them gain the skills to navigate returning to school.
Dr. Johnson suggests consulting a psychologist or psychiatrist with experience treating children with an anxiety disorder if your child:
- Disrupts the household and interferes with family activities and life
- If they get upset multiple times a day or week
- When the frequency and intensity of the fears escalate (this may be accompanied by acting out, meltdowns, screaming, yelling, or tantrums).
- Significantly avoids situations that provoke anxiety, like school
- Struggles to interact with, make, or keep friends as a result of their anxiety
- Sees their sleep habits disrupted
- Exhibits compulsive behaviors or rituals like repeated hand washing, counting, checking things, and when your child refuses or is unable to leave the house without performing these rituals.
- Shows a pattern of physical symptoms that are disruptive and detrimental to them (vomiting, stomachaches, etc.)
- Experiences panic attacks characterized by heart palpitations, sweating, nausea, hyperventilation.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
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What does childhood anxiety look like? Probably not what you think (2018, October 9)
Back-to-School Anxiety During COVID. Child Mind Institute (n.d.)
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Back to school anxiety