How To Help Your Kids Cope With Back-To-School Anxiety

Photo by Kristen Curette Hines

As parents, we’re all driven to do our best, but sometimes we need to just embrace the messy moments that inevitably come up. This back-to-school season, mbg’s teaming up with Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid—the first-ever hybrid minivan—to celebrate what we like to call mostly mindful parenting.

It is 8:25 a.m. on a Wednesday morning in July. I leisurely stroke Cam's tan face and hair that feels thick with leftover sunblock. "Time to get up, sweetie. You have camp." I love my summer days at the beach, late family nights listening to audiobooks, and road trips to Maine and beyond. My husband and I whisper about how nice the summer has been, hoping not to jinx it. The ease of summer is so much healthier—sports-free weekends, no homework, and unstructured time to just be a family. To be calm, bored even.

But yesterday was the last day to sign up for After School Enrichment for the fall. That marks a transition. A slide back to school. My tummy grumbles with the realization. As an adult with emotional coping, self-awareness, and an ability to regulate my own time, anxiety still creeps up. For our children, back-to-school anxiety often smacks them in the face with the force of a WWE wrestler. And every year, parents seem surprised.

For kids of all ages, the transition back to school is a little anxiety-provoking in the best-case scenario, and majorly distressing in the worst. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, and for kids with anxiety, it generally worsens during times of transition.

Of course, it is normal to have some worry! Who will be my new teacher? Will they be nice? Who will be in class? Will I have friends? Can I keep up with the work? New schedules, new fears, loss of friendships, loss of summer, new pressures, more responsibility, busier schedules, changing bodies, and changing emotions, to name a few. Kids of all ages experience this.

My elementary-school-age son is worried about how to manage the homework, who will be in his class, and whether or not his teacher will be nice. My emerging ninth-grade niece is worried about whether to take advanced placement classes, how to make new friends, how to stay connected to those who are going to different schools, and how to navigate a bigger space. In both situations, my initial reaction is to say, "It will be OK. It will all work out," but that's about as helpful as saying, "I don't care that much."

What to do if your kid is anxious about starting school again.

First and foremost, stay connected to your kid and keep lines of communication open. Manage your own anxiety—remember, you set the tone in the family. Most people (young or old) don't want advice; they just want a trusted sounding board. Resist the urge to fix; just listen, and create structure.

The parent/caregiver does not have to solve the problem but should rather sit with the child, show that you care and are willing to listen, and that you are there to be with them. This reassures them that they are not alone in their fear. Empathy and connection help mediate anxiety. The worst thing to do is minimize it. All feelings are valid ("It is OK you feel super worried"), but all behaviors are not ("You cannot stay home or go late").

Empathize, listen, and then ask questions. "I remember feeling worried when I was your age. Many kids feel anxious when they go back to school. What makes you worry? What is the best-case scenario and the worst-case scenario? Let's imagine the worst-case scenario and think it through together. Has that happened before? What makes you think it will happen now? What are your options in terms of managing it? I'll always be here to listen and help you think it through."

Structure is also crucial. Pay close attention to sleep, diet, exercise, and breath. Refocus on earlier bedtimes and soothing routines a week before school starts. Make sure the kids are eating healthy foods at regular times. Always pay attention to allowing children to have plenty of unstructured, active (outdoor if possible) playtime. Give coping skills—practice belly breathing before school and before bed, modeling self-regulation, sharing how it helps you manage when you feel worried.

When and how to seek help.

For your young child experiencing persistent and unrelenting anxiety, look for the signs below. Because they're still learning how to identify and talk about thoughts and emotions, their most obvious symptoms are behavioral. Symptoms in children may include:

  • Changes in school performance
  • Excessive worry or anxiety beyond their norm
  • Hyperactive or hypoactive behavior
  • Nightmares
  • Aggression, irritability, or increased arguing
  • Frequent temper tantrums

For your adolescent, look for the signs below:

  • Excessive worrying or fear
  • Feeling excessively sad or low
  • Confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning
  • Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable "highs" or feelings of euphoria
  • Prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger
  • Avoiding friends and social activities
  • Difficulties understanding or relating to other people
  • Changes in sleeping habits or feeling tired and low-energy
  • Changes in eating habits such as increased hunger or lack of appetite
  • Difficulty perceiving reality (delusions or hallucinations, in which a person experiences and senses things that don't exist in objective reality)
  • Inability to perceive changes in one's own feelings, behavior, or personality ("lack of insight")
  • Abuse of substances like alcohol or drugs
  • Multiple physical ailments without obvious causes (such as headaches, stomachaches, vague and ongoing "aches and pains")
  • Thinking about hurting oneself and/or suicide
  • Inability to carry out daily activities or handle daily problems and stress
  • An intense fear of weight gain or concern with appearance
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Still concerned? Here are some helpful resources.

Now read up on these 6 mindful hacks for surviving the back-to-school rush.

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