Back-to-school anxiety is normal and understandable. Many kids may feel anxious about going back to school after a long summer break. Others may feel nervous about starting school for the first time.
Regardless of what the case may be, parents can help ease the transition to back-to-school by being able to recognize the symptoms of stress and anxiety and implementing some creative strategies.
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Reasons Kids Might Be Stressed or Anxious
When it comes to stress and anxiety about returning to school, there are any number of reasons that your kids might be stressed or anxious. For some kids, their stress and anxiety is rooted in a fear of the unknown, especially if they will be in a new building or a new school district.
Not only may they be worried about making friends, but they also may have concerns about the workload and whether or not they have the skills needed to be successful.
Sometimes kids are anxious or worried about the upcoming school year because of experiences with bullies. For many kids, the summer can be a welcome reprieve from mean behavior and cutting remarks. So as the new school year approaches, they may begin to worry that they will have to go through the same things again.
Kids also might be stressed about appearance-related issues. In other words, kids from financially-challenged families may worry about not having the right clothes or supplies. Other kids may worry about how others will view them especially if they have experienced weight changes, are now wearing glasses, have developed acne, or have recently gone through puberty.
Other common stressors include having a falling out with a close friend, getting cut from a sports team, dealing with a new learning environment, being assigned to a difficult teacher, and not getting into higher level courses.
There are countless reasons why kids may experience anxiety and stress as the first day of school approaches. In fact, their reasons are as unique as they are.
COVID-19 and Kids' Anxiety and Stress Levels
COVID-19 is also contributing to increasing anxiety and stress levels as the new school year approaches. In fact, many kids and teens are experiencing feelings of fear, anxiety, stress, and uncertainty as they struggle to come to terms with the pandemic. It's not uncommon for people—including young people—to struggle with psychosocial issues during outbreaks of infectious diseases.
For instance, a study of the Ebola outbreak found that an increased number of people reported experiencing mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Meanwhile, another study conducted following the outbreak of the swine flu, found that children receiving mental health care are particularly psychologically vulnerable to epidemics like COVID-19.
Consequently, it should not be surprising that the coronavirus is having a significant impact on kids across the nation. Their entire lives have been disrupted. And many of the things that contributed to their budding identities have been stripped from them.
Not only are they limited in terms of who they can see and spend time with, but they also have had to deal with grief over many of their favorite activities being cancelled including everything from sports and family vacations to summer camps and drivers education programs. Likewise, the continuing uncertainty about the upcoming school year also is contributing to an increase in stress and anxiety among young people.
Most kids also are trying to process the information they overhear or see on social media about the risks associated with getting sick from the coronavirus. This information may cause them to worry about the health of their parents and grandparents, or even cause them to fear getting sick themselves. They may worry about getting COVID-19 and passing it on to the people they love.
Plus factor in the need to wear masks and social distance—two things they have likely never experienced before—and it's enough to make even mentally strong kids experience stress and anxiety. So, while it may be disconcerting to see your child's stress and anxiety levels rise as the school year approaches, it's also important to know that it's not uncommon.
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How to Identify Anxiety and Stress
While stress and anxiety regarding returning to school during a pandemic is common, it's also not something that should be ignored. For this reason, you need to be able to identify when your kids are struggling with stress and anxiety.
Signs of Anxiety
When kids are anxious, they may not know how to put their feelings into words. For this reason, it's important that parents know how to recognize the signs of anxiety. Here are some common indicators that a child might be anxious.
Displays changes in eating and sleeping habits
Has bouts of unexplained crying
Complains of stomachaches
Struggles to concentrate
Appears more clingy than normal
Gets upset or angry more quickly
Expresses negative thoughts or worries
Appears restless and fidgety
Overall, if your child's anxiety lasts longer than two weeks and interferes with their daily life, this could be a sign of an anxiety disorder. Be sure to talk to your child's doctor about your concerns.
Untreated anxiety puts kids at risk for poor school performance, difficulty maintaining friendships, and even depression. And as kids get older, untreated anxiety can even lead to substance abuse.
Tips for Dealing With Stress and Anxiety
Of course the best way to address stress and anxiety is to encourage your child to talk to you about what is troubling them. Be sure to listen without judgement and validate their feelings. Sometimes expressing their feelings is all a child needs to feel better.
Another great way to ease some of your child's anxiety about going back to school is to get your home ready for the transition. Strategies such as planning school lunches ahead of time or establishing a comfortable homework area can help make kids feel more in control and relieve some of their anxious feelings. Here are some other strategies that may help ease the tension they are feeling.
Foster a Comfort Level
As the school year approaches, it's important to help your child feel more comfortable about their new school environment. One of the things that can cause back-to-school anxiety for kids is not knowing what to expect.
This unfamiliarity may be inevitable during the 2020–2021 school year, especially if there are new rules and guidelines. Consequently, you want to take time to help your child prepare for how things might be different.
Help them become more acclimated to new routines and unfamiliar surroundings by talking through what they might expect to see. Allow them to ask questions and answer them honestly.
Another option to help build your child's comfort level is to make a couple of trips to and from school. Whether your child will walk, take a school bus, or be driven to school, helping them become familiar with the route will help ease back-to-school anxiety.
Even if your child is already familiar with the route to school, making a pre-first-day run will remind them where the school is, and help them feel more connected to where they will go on the first day back. This exercise is even important for first-time drivers. Teens need to know how to get to school and where to park their car.
You also should go over the basics with your kids. For instance, talk about where they will put their jacket as well as how lunch will be handled. You could even talk about how bathroom breaks are handled in the building. Knowing the answers to some of these questions will help your child feel more comfortable in their new classroom.
One way to help ease anxiety and stress about starting school, is to remind your kids about what makes school great. Aside from learning new things and participating in extracurricular activities, there is a lot that is good about school.
For starters, there's the swag—fun new school supplies and clothes. There's also friends they haven't seen in awhile as well as things they may have missed about school. Remind your kids what they can look forward to about school such as time with friends, the playground, gym class, or even art class.
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Assure Them They Aren't Alone
Remind your kids that they're not the only ones who may be nervous about starting school again. Other students are likely to be just as anxious as they are about the first day of school. Reassure them too, that the teacher knows kids are nervous, and will probably spend time helping students feel more comfortable as they settle into the classroom.
If your child is concerned about reconnecting with friends they haven't seen all summer, arrange some playdates–either virtually or in person. Helping your children reconnect with old friends or strengthen bonds with new ones not only reduces anxiety and stress, but also can help your child start the year off on the right foot.
Keep in mind that the pandemic may accentuate feelings of isolation and loneliness in kids—especially if they have been cut off from the peers the entire summer. For this reason, you need to do what you can to reconnect them with their peers—even if it's just virtually.
In some schools, you can get a class list, which can help you in knowing who to connect with. But if your school district restricts access to this list, try posting in school community groups online in order to connect with other parents with children in your child's class. Meanwhile, if your child is anxious about not being in the same class with old friends, reassure them that they can still stay in touch.
Make an Effort to Be Present
As your child transitions back to school, you need to make every effort to be there for them, especially during the first few weeks. One way to do that, is to try to be home more during back-to-school time if that's possible for you.
Right before school starts and during the first days back, try to make it a point to be present at home for your child and support them through this transition. If you work away from home, try to arrange your hours so that you're able to drop your child off at school as well as be there after school if you can.
If you're a stay-at-home parent, try to focus more on your child and put everything else on the back burner when they are home. Spend some time talking to your child about their day such as what they liked and what they might have questions about.
By giving your child more attention, you will help them feel more secure about their connection to you and home, and help them navigate back-to-school time.
Promote Healthy Living
One of the best ways to combat anxiety and stress is to address eating, sleeping and exercise habits. For instance, make sure your kids get enough sleep and eat a balanced diet. Getting adequate sleep and eating healthy food, especially a balanced breakfast, is important for brain function, mood, and the ability to focus and pay attention in school.
Likewise your kids need plenty of opportunities to burn off steam. For instance, some kids like playing active sports while others enjoy a quiet afternoon reading or journaling. Every kid is different. So make sure you're choosing activities that are truly stress-relievers for your child.
Know When to Get Outside Help
You know your child best. If you sense that their back-to-school anxiety may be rooted in something more serious, such as an anxiety disorder or a problem with a bully, talk with your child, your child's teacher, and the school counselor.
If your child continues to struggle with anxiety, or if you feel you need additional help, you can contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.
For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.
And remember you need to relax as well. Back-to-school time can be just as hectic and stressful for parents. So taking care of yourself by eating right and getting enough sleep and exercise is a good idea during this transitional phase.
Meanwhile, try to remind yourself that any anxiety or stress you or your child may be feeling is only temporary. Before you know it, your family will be deep into the back-to-school groove, and you'll be sailing smoothly into the fall semester.
The key to supporting your kids when they are stressed or anxious about the upcoming school year is to be there for them. Listen to their concerns without minimizing their feelings or trying to fix the situation. Allow them the space to process their feelings without judgment.
Sometimes just knowing that someone understands what they're experiencing is enough to help kids get through a challenging situation. Other times, they need a little extra help. In these situations, be sure you talk to your child's doctor or seek help from a mental health professional. With the right help and treatment, your child will soon learn to manage their stress and anxiety.
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