What You Can Do About Back-to-School Anxiety
Close your eyes and think back to the first time you stepped onto a big yellow school bus. Or your first day at a new elementary school, looking around to find someone familiar to sit with in the cafeteria. Think back to fumbling around with the lock on your locker in middle school, trying to play it cool while butterflies swirled in your stomach.
Back-to-school anxiety is a real thing. For many, it’s mild and alleviates as confidence comes and the school year gets going. But for others, it’s nearly paralyzing, leaving kids with a sense of dread and sometimes physical sickness.
We talked to Faith Crittenden, senior program director in children’s mental health services at Family and Children’s Services, about signs of back-to-school anxiety and what parents can do about it.
7 Things a Therapist Wants You to Know About Back-to-School Anxiety
1. Back-to-school anxiety is normal.
“There is anxiety that is normal, healthy and even motivating,” Critenden said.
Motivating anxiety may present itself as a child wanting to have a first-day-of-school outfit picked out, laying out his school supplies or organizing her backpack weeks before school starts.
Physical manifestations of anxiety are a sign the anxiety is more severe.
“For some kids, anxiety looks like lots of stomachaches and headaches,” Crittenden said. “If they become tearful, if they’re isolating or pulling back from family functions because they’re struggling, those are all signs.”
Crittenden said some kids become excessively giddy or silly, trying to distract themselves or downplay some of their feelings.
“If they seem more agitated or on edge, that could also be an indication they are dealing with anxiety and it’s being masked,” she said.
2. Anxiety can come from a fear of the unknown.
“If they’re excessively asking questions about the new school year, they’re trying to digest and anticipate,” Crittenden said.
So, think through scenarios with your child to alleviate some of that unease. Crittenden suggests going to meet-the-teacher day before school starts and, for older kids, walking through the class schedule to make sure they know how to get from class to class. For kids of all ages, let them walk through the school to find out where the bathroom is, the office and the cafeteria.
Role play before school starts, practicing how to ask for help. For small children, that may be “I’m lost. I don’t know where my teacher is.”
“With older kids, they want to know how to ask for help without looking vulnerable or embarrassed,” Crittenden said.
So, for them, that may sound more like, “Oh my gosh, I have no clue where to go. I’m new here. Can you help?”
Preparing for what’s to come is one of the best ways to help kids feel more confident about the school year. Crittenden said to let kids be invested in the process by taking them to pick out their school supplies or school uniforms and taking advantage of opportunities before school starts, such as meet-the-teacher events and schedule pick up.
3. Getting to and from school can be a stressor.
Crittenden suggests going over the drop-off and pick-up routine with your child. Help them to memorize the bus number and their parents’ phone numbers. If the child walks to school or home from school, walk that path with them several times before school starts. Crittenden said to help the child find identifiers or markers along the way, like “There’s the yellow fire hydrant.”
4. Speaking fear into existence is a myth.
Crittenden said some parents are reluctant to bring up their child’s anxiety because they’re afraid it will cause more anxiety.
“Talking about it is much better than not talking about it,” she said. “There’s the thought of, ‘If I speak it into existence, that’s going to make it worse.’ If thought implantation worked, we wouldn’t have children who misbehaved.”
She said to begin talking about the new school year about four weeks from the first day. Be positive, saying things like, “This next school year, you’ll be in the fourth grade, and that’s so exciting!”
5. Help your child navigate his or her anxiety.
Give words to your child’s feelings.
“’I can see that you’re really worried. I can tell that by how silly you’re being. Or how fast you’re shaking your leg,’” Crittenden explained. “Root it in their behavior.”
“‘We call that anxiety.’ ‘You might feel butterflies in your stomach.’ Help them pair their physiological symptoms, rooting those feelings and giving those sensations emotional words.”
6. Give them coping strategies.
“One of the things we teach kids is a grounding technique. If they’re scared or angry – sometimes it’s almost like their heads are flying away from their little bodies – this can help,” Crittenden said.
One such strategy is called 5-4-3-2-1, a grounding technique to anchor the child by engaging in all five senses. Crittenden suggests presenting the idea to a child before school starts so that they can use the calming method in times of anxiety at school.
The child can think of five things they see (a chair, a bookshelf), four things they hear (the school bell, a whistle on the playground), three things they feel (shoes on their feet, the smoothness of the desk), two things they smell (cinnamon rolls in the cafeteria, markers) and one thing they can taste (morning toothpaste, peanut butter from lunch).
“No one has to know what you’re doing. Nobody has to know what you’re thinking in your head,” Crittenden said.
Deep breathing is also important, she said, as it gets oxygen to the muscles and brain.