How to recognize when your child may need extra support to cope with the anxiety of returning to school

Child Health | 13 days ago

When Back-to-School Jitters Become Anxiety

How to recognize when your child may need extra support to cope with the anxiety of returning to school.

The back-to-school jitters. Almost all of us remember feeling uneasy when thinking about the start of a new school year. What will my new teacher be like? Will I have friends in my class? How do lockers unlock, anyway?

Sometimes, however, back-to-school jitters turn into back-to-school anxiety. Crystal Bullard, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Atrium Health, urges parents to expect some back-to-school anxiety, to prepare for it and to recognize when anxiety may require additional help.

“Most people are going to feel anxious about things that are new, and a new school year is obviously a change,” Dr. Bullard says. “It’s normal to have anxiety, but sometimes the anxiety becomes more of an issue, causing problems for a child’s normal daily functioning.” 

Tips to Ease Back-to-School Anxiety

If parents feel that children are becoming anxious, Dr. Bullard encourages them to talk openly with their children.

1. By simply creating an open conversation, parents can take the first step toward alleviating children’s anxiety by normalizing their concerns.

  • Ask which part of the new school year makes them feel worried, and listen attentively when they share their feelings.
  • Tell your children that you understand that they’re nervous, and that’s it’s OK to feel worried.

2. Next, determine what steps can be taken to alleviate children’s worries.

  • Back-to-school orientations can be helpful in decreasing fear. If a child is nervous about getting lost in a new school, finding a locker, or getting a new teacher, these events can take some of the mystery – and uncertainty – out of a new school year.
  • Take children to meet their new teachers, wander the halls, explore the playground and locate lockers and bathrooms.

3. Another useful practice that Dr. Bullard encourages is helping children organize school materials.

  • Don’t assume that children already have organizational skills, but instead, ask them if they’d like to arrange their materials together.
    • Where is the best place to store their planner?
    • Where should they keep their gym clothes?
    • Where’s a convenient place to keep their schedule? 

“Preparation is the key in decreasing anxiety. Prepare for the things that will be new to them during the next school year,” Dr. Bullard says. “During the weeks before school begins, transition back into a school schedule, waking up and going to bed at appropriate times. This helps transition the body back into the school routine.”

How to Spot Anxiety in a Child

Anxiety is among the most common disorders that child and adolescent psychiatrists treat, with approximately one in four children experiencing some form of anxiety. To know when normal worries become problematic anxiety, Dr. Bullard encourages parents to watch for changes that interrupt a child’s normal habits. These may be behavioral or emotional changes that interfere with the child’s daily activities. Sometimes anxiety appears with physical symptoms, such as stomach aches, insomnia, lack of appetite, or fatigue.

Symptoms can vary depending upon the child’s age:

  • Back-to-school anxiety in younger, elementary-aged students often exists as separation anxiety. Some young children are so frightened to leave their parents that they refuse to walk into the school.
  • For middle and high school students, back-to-school anxiety is more often social anxiety. Social anxiety can make a child feel so worried about saying the wrong thing that they silence or isolate themselves; they may have a hard time maintaining conversations with peers, or they may avoid the cafeteria or extracurricular activities. All of these habits not only interfere with a child’s ability to socializes, but they compromise a child’s concentration and academic performance, too.

“These responses are going to isolate a child more and more,” Dr. Bullard says. “It sounds cliché, but we have to face our fears. Avoidant behavior is a natural response, but it’s only going to worsen the anxiety. Encourage children to face their fears and to try coping skills like deep breathing techniques. The idea is that with time, they’ll get better and adjust. Kids are very resilient.”

If symptoms don’t improve and they interfere with a child’s normal activities, Dr. Bullard advises talking with a medical professional. Talk to a pediatrician, a counselor, or another mental health professional for advice about next steps.

Starting a new school year can be scary. But with the right tools – sympathy, preparation, and coping strategies – you can help children create a confident start to a new school year and teach them skills that can help them for a lifetime.

 

If you or a loved one is in need of assistance, Atrium Health’s Behavioral Health Help Line is available 24/7 at 704-444-2400.