Managing Your Child’s Back-to-School Anxiety

By Dr. Michael Oberschneider, Ashburn Psychological & Psychiatric Services

With the start of the school year just weeks away, many children are beginning to look forward to returning to class. However, the numerous uncertainties, unanswered questions, and unknowns about what school will be like this year, alongside the significant life changes and adjustments of the past 16 months, have created a lot of anxiety for returning students.

While back-to-school anxiety is not uncommon, recent surveys have shown that the number of elementary and middle school, high school, and college students experiencing anxiety is at an all-time high; one survey revealed that 66 percent of children have notable anxiety about returning to school.

In addition to anxiety, surveys have also revealed disturbing patterns that weren’t there before, with higher rates of depression, anger, behavior problems, substance use problems, and sleep problems for children and teens during COVID-19.

In my work as a child psychologist, I, too, have noticed the increase in anxiety for children and teens this past year and a half; and more recently, there has been an absolute tsunami of anxiety — separation anxiety, social anxiety, generalized anxiety, and panic — for children, teens, and parents regarding this upcoming school year.

Back-to-school anxiety can be difficult for children and teens to overcome and manage, especially this year. I offer the following tips in support of easing your child’s or teen’s struggles.

Take your own temperature as a parent
In many ways, our children are extensions of ourselves, and so, it’s easy for us as parents to sometimes over-identify with and/or even overfeel our children’s emotional pain.

Being mindful of your statements, advice, and behaviors in response to your child’s or teen’s back-to-school anxiety is important. In addition, modeling positivity and strength regarding the return to school will also help to ease anxiety for them.

Prepare and practice for the return
Anxiety likes to take control, and more than anything, it likes to distort control when it comes to how we think, feel, and behave. So, if your child is afraid of returning to school, for example, they will likely have distorted or exaggerated thoughts of unsafety and feelings of unsafety, which could lead to difficulties for your child to get to school or remain in school.

One way to get more legitimate control over anxiety’s distorted control at this moment is to prepare and practice. For example, getting your child into a back-to-school routine (adjusting bedtime, selecting clothes, etc.), increasing your child’s social time with children they will see at school, visiting the school if it’s open, or playing on the school’s playground are a few ways that can help to normalize your child’s feelings as they transition back to school.

Listen, communicate openly, and validate
I encourage parents to openly talk to their children and teens about their return to school. If they are having difficulty opening up, open-ended questions can be helpful.

For instance, you could ask them about some of the things they may be looking forward to and some of the things they may not be looking forward to in returning to school. Validating their concerns and worries will help them to achieve greater resilience and confidence.

Praise and reward
As a psychologist and father, I am a huge fan of praise and reward; applied separately or together, they reinforce positive change and increase self-esteem and competency in our children. So, if your younger child has developed separation anxiety, offer them a reward (going out for ice cream with you) for attending a playdate outside of your presence and the home.

A teen I work with who has anxiety about returning to college this fall is taking a fun and adventurous road trip with his parents prior to returning to school. The extra positive time with his mother and father, and the planned activities, have helped to ease his anxiety about going back.

Know your child’s or teen’s bandwidth
Certainly, the expectation is for your child or teen to return to school. However, knowing and respecting their limits is important. If their anxiety remains high, communicating with the school as soon as possible is a good idea.

From preschool to college, involved school personnel can work closely with your children and you to support their safe and successful return to school.

Get help if needed
Combating anxiety is difficult, and while children can work through their back-to-school struggles without professional help much of the time, there are times when professional help is warranted.

This has been and continues to be an especially challenging time for our children, so it will be important to keep a closer parental watch on things in the coming weeks.

If you believe your child or teen is struggling with anxiety or any other mental health problems, and their struggle is more than you can help them with as a parent, I recommend contacting a child psychologist or therapist.

The school year is closely upon us, and we all want life — including our child’s or teen’s schooling — to return to normal. There remain numerous uncertainties, unanswered questions, and unknowns about what school will be like this year.

There are ample reasons for our children to be anxious, and there are plenty of reasons for them to be happy. The pandemic is ending, our children are thankfully returning to school, and life is slowly returning to normal.