How to Tell Which Kind of Back-to-School Anxiety Your Child Is Experiencing & Whether to Address It With a Conversation or a Medical Appointment
It’s back-to-school season, and for parents, students, and teachers alike that transition often comes with a fair amount of back-to-school anxiety. In most cases, back-to-school anxiety subsides as the school year gets going and students get used to new routines, new teachers, and new friends. A week or two may be all it takes for a nervous student to acclimate.
However, some children experience more severe back-to-school anxiety. For example, you can expect more back-to-school anxiety in very young children, kids who are changing schools, or students beginning a transition year as they enter kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, or high school. Other children may have underlying reasons for being uneasy going to school, and back-to-school anxiety may be a sign of something else entirely.
It’s important to be able to help your children navigate challenges related to overcoming anxiety, and back-to-school season is the perfect time to start.
1: Talk to Your Kids About Going Back to School
Pick a time when you yourself aren’t stressed with the shift to a new routine and all the tasks that come with it, and talk to your kids about how they feel. It’s important that you be calm in these moments, so that your stress doesn’t get passed on to your kids. You can open the conversation casually, perhaps asking about what they’re looking forward to in the next school year and letting the conversation flow from there.
Then, just listen and acknowledge their feelings. While it might be tempting to reassure kids who experience back-to-school anxiety by telling them there’s nothing to worry about, that approach can make children feel like their feelings aren’t valid. Instead, empathize with their situation and express confidence in their ability to handle it. If your child is nervous about making friends in a new school, for example, it can be helpful to say that you know it’s hard to be in that situation, but you also know that your child has specific qualities that can help them through it.
2: Prepare the Transition
Start preparing the transition a few weeks ahead of time to create a gradual ramp-up to school-year routines. A few weeks before school is set to start, adjust back to a reasonable bedtime and start waking up a little bit earlier every day. Even eating lunch around the same time as school lunch can help your kids hit the ground running this school year.
Starting these routines can be challenging, as anyone who’s tried to get a teenager to wake up early when they don’t absolutely have to be up can attest. But the rewards for your children can be great in the long run, even if they do grumble a bit in the moment. By modeling for your children how to take practical steps to prepare for a change or transition, you’re also teaching them that change might be uncomfortable, but preparing for it and persisting through it can lead to new opportunities and adventures that otherwise they would miss out on.
If your child is starting a new school or is young enough to be reluctant to separate when you drop them off, driving by or visiting when possible can also help normalize the changes that accompany new school years.
3: If Back-to-School Anxiety Persists or Becomes Severe
Say you’ve had conversations about going back to school, prepared new routines, and given specific praise for being brave and resilient once the school year got going, and weeks into the year your child still has anxiety about going back to school. If your children are still experiencing anxiety symptoms after the first few weeks of school or their back-to-school anxiety symptoms seem to worsen, there are several things you can do to help.
Keep sending your kids to school even if they say they don’t want to go. It’s hard to send your kids into situations that cause them anxiety, but there is an important learning opportunity for your child hidden within it. If you give in and let your kids stay home when they’re anxious about school, you may inadvertently teach them to avoid situations that make them anxious while giving credence to the idea that there’s something scary about school. On the other hand, if you teach your children how to navigate and overcome their anxiety, it will be a lesson that pays off for a lifetime.
When Back-to-School Anxiety Becomes School Refusal
Sometimes there is a specific reason when children are reluctant to go to school beyond normal back-to-school jitters. School refusal, or a persistent and prolonged pattern of avoiding going to school, can be a sign that something more serious is going on. Maybe it’s a bully and your child doesn’t feel safe. It could be an undiagnosed learning disorder holding your child back from participating in and enjoying at least parts of school. It is also possible that the frequently cited stomach aches or headaches your child is complaining about might signify a real medical problem.
Open up conversations with your kids about what they’re feeling and why to start a dialogue that can help you pinpoint the issue. You will also want to check in with their teachers to compare notes and, in case of bullying, develop a plan together to address the situation. If you suspect an undiagnosed learning disability, looping in your child’s teachers and establishing that dialogue will help you gather information that can help you address the problem.
When to Seek Medical Assistance
Anxiety has a way of making itself known by way of physical symptoms, and back-to-school anxiety is no different. Keep an eye out for physical symptoms of anxiety like stomach aches or headaches. If physical symptoms of anxiety persist, or if back-to-school anxiety starts to seem excessive, make an appointment with your pediatrician to rule out another medical problem.
If it’s not a medical issue, your child’s back-to-school anxiety may be driven by an underlying mental health issue. If you think this may be the case with your child, or if your child’s anxiety significantly gets in the way of their ability to go through their day normally, your next step may be to make an appointment with a child psychologist or psychiatrist.
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