Easing Back-to-School Anxiety in Children and Teens: Tips for Parents
Back to school time can be stressful for most children, teens and their parents. For young people with anxiety, this stress is heightened. Their minds fill with “what ifs” and worst case scenarios, and without any real interactions at school for a couple months, anxious imaginations can go wild:
Will my teachers be nice? Will I fail a class? Will my friends remember me? Will I have to eat lunch alone? Will I get lost in the school building? Will people treat me kindly? What if I trip up the stairs? What if I don’t know anyone in my math class? What if I don’t understand anything in chemistry? I shouldn’t have signed up for that AP class. I shouldn’t have taken Photography and not Trig. What was I thinking? What am I doing? What am I going to do? I can’t handle this. I won’t be able to make it. I don’t want to go to school.
Just reading the thoughts above may feel overwhelming to you, but the truth is that for an anxious young person, this can be their reality. The worry center of the brain takes over, and a single worry about a teacher can start a downward spiral. That spiral ends with the young person deciding that school will be a terrible experience and saying they don’t want to go back in the fall.
Young people can learn to cope with their anxieties, but at first they may not know where to begin. Use the tips below to start to understand the anxiety and to help your young person have a positive return back to school.
Talk with Your Child/Teen: Listen, Explore and Empower
It is important for you to be a support and a sounding board for your young person, but let them be the expert of their reality. Ask your young person questions about their thoughts and feelings related to back to school. Remember from our article about talking with your young person about mass shootings, that as much as you want to take away their anxiety and stress, you can’t. Validate their fears and be there for them. Remember to use phrases like I can understand how you feel that way, or: It sounds like you are feeling very stressed. When your young person feels heard, they will keep talking and processing with you.
Here are some questions you could start with:
How are you feeling about back to school?
Are you worried about anything in particular about back to school?
What do you like about school? What is hard for you with school?
Is there anything you’ve missed about school that you are ready to get back to?
With anxiety, the brain will always be able to come up with something much more scary than the reality of what is likely to happen. Talk with your young person about what their thoughts are, and help them brainstorm the best, worst and most likely scenarios for back to school. You don’t need to answer for them, just let them talk about them and see how they can process it for themselves.
Try these questions to help them work through the best/worst/most likely case scenarios:
What’s the worst that your brain has come up with about what might happen when you go back to school?
What do you think is the best possible thing that could happen when you go back to school?
What is the most likely situation when you go back to school?
Despite how the answers to the questions sound, let them answer in their own truth. Don’t argue with them or try to tell them what the “real” most likely scenario is. Go back to validate and empathizing. Then, empower them.
Give them (age-appropriate) choices and power related to back to school so that they feel in control of the situation . What are some choices that they can have related to school? Here are some ideas:
What clothes do you want to wear on the first day? (Elementary)
What time do you think you would be good to get up on the first day? (Middle/High)
Do you want to pack lunch or buy on the first day?
What can I do to help you feel ready for school?
Ease Back into The Transition
For most, school starts the day after Labor Day (in just a few weeks!). Now is a great time to start to go to bed a little bit earlier and wake up a little bit earlier each day. This helps the brain and the body get back on a routine for when school starts. Creating gradual change rather than a jarring shift will help the new routine feel more natural, and save them from sleep deprivation the first week of school. Poor sleep creates more anxiety! Some families pack the end of summer with last minute family fun. While this is wonderful for releasing stress and creating memories, sometimes that leaves them scrambling to prepare for school just a day or two before it begins! With a couple weeks until school begins, now is a great time to make sure that all the school supplies are ready, and clothes are purchased. Being physically prepared for school takes one worry off of the young person’s plate. Another way to begin to ease back into the transition is to make sure morning school expectations are clear and known by the young person. What do you want your young person to do each morning? What time do you want them to get up? How long is the drive/walk/ride to school? What time will you need to leave the house by? Slowly uncovering the details rather than bombarding them with them on day one can be helpful.
Visit the School Before the First Day
For some young people with anxiety, the fear of not knowing where they are going or what to expect can start the spiral. For others, the fear of getting lost or confused is hard for them to shake. Set up a time to visit the school before the first day. If they will have different classes, walk their schedule and find each room. If possible, meet some of the teachers the young person will have that school year. When they know where they are going and what to expect about the layout of the school and classroom, it is one less thing for them to worry about.
Connect with a Support at School
If your child is entering into elementary school, connect with the classroom teacher if possible before the first day of school. Take a few moments to share a little bit about your child’s anxiety and how they are feeling about returning to school. If there are things that help your child when anxious, like taking a walk or taking a break from the task, let them know. If necessary, connect with the school counselor or other professional, too. If you will need to connect with someone to do a “handoff” one the first day of school, make plans for that. Be open and honest with the school so they can support your child the best they can.
For a middle or high school age student, it is important to connect with a resource like the school counselor, school resource officer or other caring adult in the school community. This person should be someone who is available for the young person to request to speak to when having a difficult time at school. Like the “handoff,” try to set up a morning check in with the supportive person. Depending on your student’s accommodations at school, they may even be able to get a “flash pass” to be able to go down to see the school counselor or other supportive adult when they are experiencing overwhelming feelings at school. A flash pass is often an accommodation for students with anxiety on their 504 Plans or IEPs. Unsure about 504s or IEPs? Check back on the blog in the future for articles on school accommodations.
Reward a Successful First Day/Week
It takes strength and perseverance for a young person to work through their anxiety. It is not easy! After a successful first day of school, reward your young person. Set up this reward before the first day fo school so they can use it as part of their motivation and self-talk on the first day of school. To set up a reward, first define what a “successful” first day looks like: Is it entering into school? Is it meeting with the school counselor? Attending all classes all day? Attending a half day? Depending on your young person’s level of anxiety and how that affects them, this may be different. After you and your young person know what they are working towards on the first day of school, talk about different rewards and let the young person choose their reward.
Need some ideas for rewards? Rewards do not have to be tangible. Rewards do not have to cost money. Yes, you can do rewards that are items, like small gifts, ice cream treats or other small items. You may even choose that the young person can work towards a larger reward by having more than one successful day. If you choose this path, use a chart or other visual to help track the progress towards the big goal.
Some small rewards that could be ideas for your young person could be:
Ice cream treat
Favorite soda or snack
Small in-app purchase on favorite game
Rent a movie on Amazon or other streaming service
Rewards that aren’t items and don’t cost money could be:
Stay up later than bedtime
Pick a movie for movie night with family
Special trip out with mom or dad without other siblings (could go to the park or other free space)
Sleepover with a friend
Free pass from doing chores
Extra screen time
Stay the Course
Anxiety can be difficult to overcome. It is overwhelming at times and your young person may become discouraged when they struggle to overcome their anxious thoughts. As the parent, be the calm, consistent presence that is there for them, success or not. Be a guide for your child, helping them explore their anxiety and brainstorm strategies. Encourage them and praise them every chance that you get. Don’t be discouraged if progress seems slow. Remember to create connections, use your supports and continue to be the calm, steady presence your child needs. Take care of yourself so that you can take care of your young person!
Seek Professional Help if Necessary
Anxiety is progressive. It will continue to increase unless there are techniques and strategies put in to place to help a person overcome the thoughts and feelings related to their anxiety. If the techniques you are implementing at home are not working to help support your child, or your young person’s anxiety is significantly interfering with their ability to participate in school, see friends, do extracurricular activities or function at home, it may be time to seek the support of a professional. Professionals are able to provide a unique environment that allows young people to explore and process their anxiety in many different ways. Techniques like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (thoughts, feelings, behavior), mindfulness, relaxation training and play therapy can help young people work through their anxiety and learn to manage symptoms of anxiety. It may also be beneficial to explore testing to help get accommodations at school and/or medication depending on the severity of your child’s anxiety.
At Healing Hart Wellness, we provide services that include play therapy, mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy in our work with young people with anxiety. We also work with parents and the entire family to help support the young person struggling with anxiety, when appropriate. We find that having Franklin, our animal assisted intervention canine, present in sessions can also help decrease young people’s anxiety significantly, allowing them to be able to feel calm enough to share and process about their feelings. If you are interested in learning more about the counseling services offered at HHW, please email Courtney Hart at email@example.com or call her at 443-594-2626.
Questions or comments about this article? Please email Courtney Hart at firstname.lastname@example.org.