How to Help Your Kid Cope With Back to School Anxiety

Cute pupils running down the hall at the elementary school

Remember setting out your outfit for the first day back to school? You probably felt a mix of excitement, wonder for the year, and a little anxiety. That wasn’t unusual then, and it especially isn’t unusual for kids today, who many experts say experience greater levels of anxiety and pressures than kids even just 10 years ago. Longer school hours, less free play, more pressure (can anyone say, “kindergarten applications?”), and other factors in their daily lives today likely all contribute.

My daughter just entered preschool, but I worry about this, too. How can we, as parents, help our children feel more confident at school? Having mommy sit next to them in every class isn’t exactly an option. And how do you know when their anxiety is beyond the usual back-to-school jitters?

Know the Facts

Anxiety about change and separation can happen at any age. For preschoolers, the anxiety typically stems from separation and the unknown, while true school anxiety typically starts around age 5 to 6. There’s another peak at ages 11 to 14, around transitional times in elementary and middle school, with key triggers being homework, academics, and friends.

Bullying is another major source of stress for kids during the school year.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics in 2015, 1 out of every 4 students reported being bullied during the school year. Students who experience bullying are much more likely to have trouble in school, problems sleeping, anxiety and depression, as well as stomachaches and headaches.

Know the Signs

Normal back-to-school fears tend to resolve after a few weeks to a month, so if your child is still anxious or having significant symptoms like the ones below, it could be a sign that they need a little more help or guidance.

Signs of School Anxiety:

  • Look out for changes in behavior. Common changes can include irritability or moodiness, withdrawal from their favorite activities, frequently stating fears or concerns, crying, being excessively clingy to a parent or teacher, or changes in sleeping or eating patterns.
  • Is your child complaining about “feeling sick” more than usual? Look out for regular complaints of stomachaches or headaches with symptoms that resolve at home.

Signs of Bullying:

Given the rise of bulling, particularly cyber-bullying, we parents have to be even more attuned to our child’s signs. Look out for:

  • Unexplainable injuries.
  • Lost or destroyed clothing, books, electronics or jewelry.
  • Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares.
  • Declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork or not wanting to go to school.
  • Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations.
  • Feelings of helplessness or decreased self-esteem.
  • Self-destructive behaviors such as running away from home, harming themselves or talk of suicide.

Know What to Do

  • Get back into your routine early. Summer gives your kids a break from the typical school routine, but start transitioning about two weeks before school starts, especially when it comes to bedtime.
  • Do a dress rehearsal. One of the biggest sources of anxiety is the unknown. Schedule a school tour about a week before school starts. Check out the classroom, introduce your child to his teacher, and let him play in the classroom for a few minutes on his own, if possible. Walking through the school, finding the classrooms, and your child’s homeroom or locker can alleviate some anxiety about knowing where to go on that first day.
  • Schedule playdates. Before school starts, schedule playdates with one or two classmates. Seeing a familiar face in the classroom that first week will help your child feel comfortable.
  • Talk to your child.Asking your children about their fears or worries about going back to school will help them share their burden. Reassure them that it’s normal to feel anxious. Point out that even the teachers feel anxious about the first day or mommy and daddy feel anxious at a new job–it’s natural and the nerves will go away. Ask what they liked about their previous school or grade, and see how those elements can be incorporated into their new experience. Remind them of similar experiences in which they were anxious, but turned out OK—especially older kids.
  • Encourage kids to do what they love. Special activities, interests, and hobbies can boost confidence, help kids make friends and protect them from bullying behavior. The school year can make kids feel a little less in control, as they follow their required schedules, but letting them participate in activities they choose (and enjoy), can help them feel empowered.
  • Help kids understand bullying and how to stand up to it. Talk about what bullying is and how to stand up to it by using humor, saying “stop” directly and confidently or by simply walking away. Explain that bullying is unacceptable.

Know When to Intervene

If you’ve tried the above steps and your child is still having symptoms of school anxiety or being bullied well into the school year, it’s likely time to intervene. Start with a candid conversation with your child and speak with their teacher or school principal. He or she may have more insight into any challenges at school and can potentially even refer you to a child therapist who specializes in this area.

How have you helped your children deal with school anxiety? Tweet me @DrDarria on Twitter or Dr. Darria Long Gillespie on Facebook. Be sure to tag and follow @SharecareInc on Twitter and Facebook for the latest health news!

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