Clinical Editor: Min Jie Lee, MD
If you thought back-to-school season was stressful as a kid, you might be surprised to find yourself even more freaked out as an adult. Being a caretaker can be tough any time of year, but when you’re trying to prepare a child for the unknown or unfamiliar and feeling your own feelings of uncertainty, things can get tricky.
“Any transition and change from an established routine can be stressful,” says One Medical pediatrician, Min Jie Lee, MD. “Kids have likely gotten comfortable with their routine in the summer, and having to transition to a new routine, classroom, teacher, and classmates can seem daunting and overwhelming.”
While Lee says this time of year can be especially stressful for incoming kindergarteners who have a strong parental attachment and separation anxiety, some degree of back-to-school anxiety is super common in any school-aged children — even in those who are excited to go back, see friends, and participate in activities. And of course, it’s impossible to discount the impact two-plus years of a pandemic may have had on kids and parents who grew accustomed to a specific type of schooling. “Anxiety can be heightened if they are coming back to school from virtual learning or home-schooling or are starting at a new school,” Lee says.
The good news is, back-to-school anxiety is just a temporary bump in the road for most kids (and parents!) and tends to fade away as everyone becomes accustomed to the new routine. That said, if your child’s anxiety and resistance to school persists beyond the first couple weeks of school or it affects daily activities (think: prolonged school drop offs, missed school days, etc.) and participation in school, it’s time to talk to their doctor or mental health professional. With that in mind, if you and your child are coping with some run-of-the-mill new-school-year-jitters, Lee has some expert advice to help ease the transition and reduce anxiety.
1. Talk it out
Lee says her number one tip for parents and kids struggling with the start of a new school year is to have an open, honest chat so that everyone can get on the same page and work toward the same goals. “Preparing for the school year together by conversing about what to expect, the anticipated routine, and running through different scenarios that may be challenging can quell the anxiety going into the school year,” she says.
If you’re not sure how to start the discussion, Lee suggests posing some initial questions to your child to help guide the talk. “Ask them to give reasons for why they are feeling nervous or scared to go back to school, and respond with sympathy and understanding,” she says. “Validate their feelings, and try to talk some of these reasons out and figure out a specific plan or solution that may help. Show them that you are confident they can handle the situation. Don’t dismiss their concerns with responses like ‘oh that’s nothing, you’ll be fine.’”
2. Know how to spot the signs of anxiety in your child
While common symptoms of back-to-school anxiety often include obvious issues like tantrums, avoidance of activities, and difficulty getting along with others, Lee says anxiety may present differently in young children. “They may not recognize the feeling of anxiety or may not have words to describe it,” she says. “They can complain of vague physical complaints such as stomachaches, headaches, nausea, tiredness or difficulty sleeping. If these complaints seem to appear when it’s time to go to school, you may want to address any underlying anxiety. And if these complaints persist and start affecting their daily activities, it may be time to see their doctor to rule out a medical cause and get them help.”
3. Find support in your community
Seeking out solace and guidance from others who may be navigating the same issues can help parents feel less isolated and provide opportunities for children to socialize ahead of the school year. “Reach out to some friends and parents in their class/school and schedule some play dates — especially if there has been limited social interactions during the summer,” Lee says. “Knowing another classmate and seeing a friendly face or two on their day back can be so reassuring!”
4. Run through the motions to get accustomed to change
Getting into the habit of going to school can make a world of difference for all family members — even if the semester hasn’t technically started. “Practice the routine of going to school a few days before the official return date,” Lee says. “Wake up as if they are going to school, get dressed, eat breakfast, and even drive to the school in the morning and walk down the halls. If there is an opportunity, have your child meet the teacher prior to the first day of school.”
5. Put your child in charge of something that lets them feel in control
The new school year comes with a lot of mandatory activities, assignments, and actions that are out of a child’s control; allowing them some authority over a small part of their everyday lives can do wonders for their self-esteem and confidence. “Going to school is not a choice for your child, but empowering them with choices they can make on the first day of school, such as picking out their outfit or choosing what they eat for breakfast, can be helpful in making them feel like they have some control over this big change,” Lee says. “Give lots of praise and positive reinforcement when they get through the first day — say things like ‘you are so brave, and I’m so proud of you.’”
While back-to-school anxiety may be inevitable in some families, implementing the tips above may help calm nerves to some degree. “And if there is significant anxiety in your child and you think they need special support, talk to the teacher or the school counselor/psychologist as they can help look out for your child and help them transition,” Lee says.
Have more questions about your child’s mental health? Our primary care team is here to help. At One Medical, we aim to provide exceptional care designed around your child’s unique health needs. Sign up today to book a same or next day appointment — in person or over video — through our app.
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