Behavioral Health

A Parent’s Guide For Relieving Back-To-School Anxiety

Your child’s anxiety isn’t entirely a product of the pandemic.

Sure, it may seem a little more heightened this year. And sure, it may manifest itself in COVID-style questioning about masks and social-distancing.

But back-to-school anxiety has been part of children’s educational experiences for . . . well . . . forever. But there are ways that parents can help reduce their child’s stress. Today, we ask our Director of Behavioral Health, Nikita Duke, DNP, PMHNP-BC, to provide some tips on how to put your youngster at ease.

Not surprisingly, students who attended the last school year online will have a bigger adjustment returning to the classroom this fall. There will be fears. There will be uncertainties. But involving children in summer camps or church programs can make the transition easier, Duke said, allowing children to experience an activity away from home and around other kids.

And yet, helping your child through back-to-school anxieties is highly individualized.

“It’s hard to give a perfect recommendation,” Duke said. Why? Because children are all different. But here are some pointers that can help parents work through, and even relieve, their child’s back-to-school fears.

Elementary Students

Back-to-school anxieties are more visible in elementary grades, especially in kindergarten and first grade. They may appear with somatic symptoms such as belly aches, nervousness or headaches. In order to combat this, Duke suggests talking with your children about returning to school and building excitement. For some, picking out school supplies, lunch boxes and backpacks is enough to bring about more excitement for the school year.

“Parents have to trust it will get better,” she said.

In this, Duke emphasizes that children will mirror what they see in their parents. In other words, parents need to put on a good face with creativity, positive reinforcement and, at times, rewards for behavior.

“You want to help the child feel ‘I can do this,’” she said.

Sometimes, this may include giving your child something to carry to help them feel brave. Duke knows the value of this approach personally. Her husband gave her a lucky family coin to carry in her pocket during her nursing exams. For others, this object may be a stuffed animal. It simply needs to bring comfort when toted around in the child’s backpack during the school day.

Teachers are also an important part of helping students overcome back-to-school anxiety. This means parents should talk with teachers about their child’s stress so they can be part of the process too.

Keep in mind, back-to-school anxiety doesn’t always appear during the first week, when students are experiencing the excitement of a new school year. For Duke’s own daughter, who is now in 7th grade, the anxiety showed up the second week of kindergarten. Her daughter was in tears and wouldn’t get out of the car. Patience and “tough love” discussions helped the process, as well as remembering, this “isn’t forever.”

Middle School Students

Students in middle school can experience similar anxieties as they become accustomed to a new school, new friends and new teachers. Duke says parents should continue to talk with their children at this age to help them be confident. Realistically, middle school is known for its tough years. Children of this age often need reminders not to let others judge them.

Besides carrying tokens and lucky objects to bring comfort, Duke emphasizes the importance of teaching middle school children to take deep breaths throughout the day. It is also important to remind students of this age to hang onto their good friends, who are also dealing with the same changes.

“It’s all been new for us before,” she says.

Talking with your middle-school — and even high-school and college-age — children can seem hard at times. Duke says it is important to observe when they are ready to talk, but also to remind them often, “I’m here.” Those reminders may come verbally. They may also come by peeking in on them and being prepared to listen when they are ready to open up to you.

High School and College Students

When it comes to helping high school students, remind them to be themselves, have confidence and take deep breaths when anxiety levels get high. Give them positive reinforcement. This is also a great age to help them be organized for their school day. Be supportive and be ready when they want to talk. Sometimes it means asking, “how can we help you?” Sometimes it means offering to connect them with the resources they need for school and life.

Duke recommends parents send a text message with positive vibes, even if it is just “I’m thinking of you.” That way your children see the encouragement as they glance at their phones throughout the school day. Instead of using a stuffed animal as a comfort token, consider a non-spinning fidget, or another type of stress-relieving toy, that allows anxiety to be displaced through motion and grasping without disrupting the class.

For students starting college, new places and new friends can be a source of anxiety. Perhaps they are leaving home for the first time. Parents can help by letting their child know they are still there for them. Duke recommends setting a communication routine with texts and calls. Let them know you are there if they need to talk or vent. Duke knows of families who start their morning with a phone call with their student, or who engage in an afternoon text exchange. This is important, Duke says, because around the ages of 20-22, college students and parents develop more of a friendship.

If any of these tips aren’t possible through a parent, Duke says these strategies can be employed by an aunt, an uncle, a cousin or any supportive person in the student’s life. Students should also maintain personal hobbies as an outlet to burn off anxiety after school.

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that anxiety around a new experience won’t last forever. Stress, fear and uncertainty will diminish over time. Other emotions such as happiness, fulfillment and confidence can take their place.

“Having anxiety can be a healthy thing that drives us and makes us more motivated for success,” Duke said. “How you handle that anxiety is what makes the difference.”

This blog first published in July 2021.