Calming Back-to-School Anxieties

As children and teens head back to school, anxiety and dread are common feelings that may set in.

Headaches, stomach pain, nausea and temper tantrums are all possible symptoms of back-to-school anxieties.

“Some level of anxiety about going back to school or any big transition is normal for most children,” said Dr. Carl Corter, the Atkinson Charitable Foundation chair in early child development and education at the University of Toronto. “And I can guarantee that if you interviewed teachers this time of year, you'd find high levels of anxiety as well.”

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In most cases children with school-related anxiety have trouble explaining why they feel ill. The American Academy of Pediatrics lists stomachaches, headaches, nightmares, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, indecisiveness and grouchiness as common symptoms associated with back-to-school stress. Although it is always prudent to rule out a physical cause for these symptoms, they characteristically tend to clear up when the child is allowed to stay at home.

“Generally, the literature shows that the three types of factors contributing to not wanting to go to school are home issues, school issues and child personality factors,” said Corter. “On the home side, separation anxiety about leaving the parent may be involved, concern about a parent's health or feeling pressure for achievement that they can't meet.”

Fear of bullying or not fitting in are causes for anxiety from the school side. Sometimes minor adjustments can help a child fit in better, such as taking the school bus instead of being dropped off. Parents should also consider the actual environment the child is exposed to: “Is the school the kind of place you would want to go every day to learn, or is it a maze of standardized tests and drills?” asked Corter.

Ask Questions

Some anxiety can be expected, but there is a great deal parents can do to help their children better cope around this time of the year. The most straightforward strategy is to talk to your child. Find out what his or her interests and concerns are and ask open-ended questions. Asking “What did you do at school today?” may only be responded to with “nothing”.

However, asking “What do your friends think about going back to school?" may be more encouraging and start a conversation. When talking to your child, give him or her your undivided attention, and try to address your children when they can do the same. Discussing their first day over dinner when everyone is sitting down will be more effective than trying to start a conversation when they are playing a videogame.

Parents trying to help their children navigate back into their school routine could also consider the following:

First of all, parents can think about their own anxieties related to their child’s schooling and whether or not they may even be projecting these to the child. Parents who worry about their children’s academic achievements may contribute to — or cause — performance anxiety.

Don't Overload Children with Activities

In addition, parents can play a role in identifying classes and school activities that are enjoyable. These additional social and academic commitments can be healthy, but parents should also be careful to strike a balance. For example, overloading a child’s schedule can actually lead to anxiety and depression. Children need “down-time” as well and at a certain point a busy social agenda can become a source of stress.

The focus at the start of a new school year is often on school supplies or new clothing, but it should rather be on the child. “Buying new pencils or a new laptop before listening to the child may be an ineffective solution,” said Corter.

When back-to-school anxieties are severe, the problem will not go away before the underlying causes are addressed. If the anxiety stems from fear of bullying, or not fitting in with peers, parents should look to the school for possible help. “When parents and schools work in partnership, children are going to feel more secure and do better,” said Corter.

At the same time, parents should encourage children to seek out positive activities that make school enjoyable.

While parents may feel overwhelmed themselves, it is important to remember they know their own children best. “Fostering the idea that experts know all the answers is not only untrue, but may contribute to parental feelings of inadequacy,” said Corter.

“Seeing a clinical psychologist or other mental health professional is needed only in more extreme cases – especially when the contributing factors are more related to the home and the child’s personality,” Corter added.